Tools Test Debunks 'Dumb Neanderthals' Theory

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; 12:00 AM

TUESDAY, Aug. 26 (HealthDay News) --Homo sapiens'long-extinct cousins, the Neanderthals, weren't the slow-witted losers in the evolutionary race they've been made out to be, new research suggests.

The finding comes after scientists used Stone Age methods to recreate and use the respective flint tools favored by each species.

"In contradiction to a 60-year assumption in archaeology, we've managed to show that Neanderthal stone tool technologies are no less efficient [in a number of respects] thanHomo sapiens'stone tool technologies. This suggests that Neanderthals did not go extinct because of inferior intellect or technology," said study author Metin I. Eren, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, and in anthropology at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

His team published its findings in the Aug. 26 issue of theJournal of Human Evolution.

"I think this [study] is very important, in that it is helping move Neanderthals out of that dark box that they have traditionally been confined to," said Jeffrey Laitman, an anthropologist and director of anatomy at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. "They are not just dumb, limited versions of ourselves, but highly advanced, very intelligent cousins. Different does not mean inferior."

The Neanderthals evolved in Ice Age Europe and are believed to have been a distinct species fromHomo sapiens, who evolved in Africa and only later spread northward about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

To survive in the cold European climate, Neanderthals evolved to be stockier and more robust than modern humans; they also had slightly larger brains, bony ridges over their eyes, flattened, elongated skulls and larger noses. The last Neanderthals died out about 28,000 years ago, and experts believe there was a 10,000-year period where both species co-existed in Europe.

But why did the Neanderthals disappear? For most of the history of modern anthropology, experts have assumed that Neanderthals were simply outsmarted by the newcomers arriving out of Africa.

"There's been a longstanding historical bias against the Neanderthals, in any number of categories -- technological prowess, hunting prowess, intelligence, reproductive abilities and success," said one expert in Neanderthal culture, Daniel Adler, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. "The roots of this go back to the nineteenth century, and it's taken us a long time to shake this bias," he said.

Over the past few decades, however, the pendulum has swung back in favor of the Neanderthals, and numerous studies, including Eren's, "have put a whole bunch of nails in the coffin of this idea," Adler said.

In their study, Eren's team used a process called flint knapping to create stone tools, just as Neanderthals orHomo sapienswould have done tens of thousands of years ago. "Flint knapping is essentially chipping or flaking certain types of stone -- flint, chert, obsidian -- that have predictable fracture patterns," Eren explained.

At about the time Neanderthals went extinct, they favored a broader stone tool archaeologists have called a "flake." On the other hand,Homo sapiensof the time were busy creating a narrower tool, dubbed the "blade." For most of the 20th century, anthropologists assumed that the blade was a technological advance over the Neanderthals' flake.

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