Neanderthals were not stupid, say scientists

Neanderthals do not deserve their "stupid" reputation and used stone tools just as useful as those invented by early modern humans, say scientists.

Neanderthals do not deserve their "stupid" reputation and used stone tools just as useful as those invented by early modern humans, say scientists.

The new research challenges the assumption that the ancestors of people living today drove Neanderthals into extinction by outclassing them in tool technology.

Other reasons may now have to be found to explain why Neanderthals vanished from Europe 28,000 years ago, after living alongside modern humans for some 10,000 years.

DNA evidence suggests that Neanderthals were a separate type of human distinct from our own species, Homo sapiens.

When early modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had already been living on the continent for around 100,000 years.

Neanderthals are thought to have evolved in Europe after a much earlier migration from Africa by their ancestors.

The initial belief that these human creatures were primitive and ape-like is now known to be wrong.

Like modern humans, Neanderthals had culture, used tools, and hunted animals with weapons.

They may even have spoken a rudimentary language.

However for 60 years the belief has persisted that Homo sapiens were intellectually more advanced than Neanderthals, enabling them to come out top in the competition to survive in a harsh world.

Evidence for this is said to be found in the kind of tools the two species used.

Both employed flint stone tools known as "flakes", simply made from fragments struck off a larger stone "core". But Homo sapiens later adopted "blades" which were flakes with parallel edges twice as long as they were wide.

Blades are generally assumed to be more efficient cutting implements. However, this is now questioned by new research from British and US experts.

The team re-created both kinds of tool and tested their cutting ability and resilience, and the rate at which they could be manufactured.

The data showed no statistical difference in the efficiency of the two technologies.

In some respects, the flakes favoured by Neanderthals were actually found to be more efficient than the Homo sapiens blades.

Experimental archaeologist Metin Eren, from the University of Exeter, said: "Our research disputes a major pillar holding up the long-held assumption that Homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthals.

"It is time for archaeologists to start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct while our ancestors survived. Technologically speaking, there is no clear advantage of one tool over the other. When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of 'stupid' or 'less advanced' and more in terms of 'different.'"

The scientists believe early modern humans adopted the new technology more for cultural or symbolic than practical reasons.

Mr Eren added: "Colonising a continent isn't easy. Colonising a continent during the Ice Age is even harder. So, for early Homo sapiens colonising Ice Age Europe, a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded.

"Thus, during hard times and resource droughts, these larger social networks might act like a type of 'life insurance', ensuring exchange and trade among members on the same 'team'.

Better social networking may have given Homo sapiens a survival advantage over Neanderthals, he said.

Another reason why Neanderthals became extinct could simply have been that they had a much lower reproduction rate than Homo sapiens, causing them to be outpopulated.

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