August 26, 2007

Neanderthals were not 'stupid'

The insurance commercial apparently got it right — Neanderthals were not stupid, simply misunderstood.

Geico's Neanderthal

A study, soon to be published in The Journal of Human Evolution, shows that Neanderthals were every bit as good at making tools as Homo sapiens, the species we see every day in the mirror, says Metin Eren, a graduate experimental archaeology student in the Department of Anthropology in Dedman College at Southern Methodist University.

The findings by Eren's team should be the final blow to the 60-year-old notion that our Homo sapiens ancestors survived and advanced because they were smarter than Neanderthals, who disappeared about 28,000 years ago. 

"There have been a number of assumptions about Neanderthal stupidity that have been overturned in recent years," said Eren.  "This is one of the last pillars."

"The fact is, we're talking about a species that survived and thrived at the height of the ice age — that's a pretty amazing accomplishment," Eren said. "Geico (insurance company) should actually get a shout-out. They do a good job of showing that Neanderthals were pretty smart."

Eren's research on early "flint knapping," the construction of stone tools by flaking or chipping, began at SMU. He has spent the last year of his research as a National Science Foundation fellow at the University of Exeter's Experimental Archeology Lab.  His team included members from the University of Exeter, Texas State University and the Think Computer Corporation, as well as SMU.

Eren's research team constructed and compared stone tools that were replicas of those developed by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. They concluded that the tools unique to Homo sapiens did not hold a particular technological advantage. They learned this by recreating stone tools known as ‘flakes,' which were wider tools originally used by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and ‘blades,' a narrower stone tool later adopted by Homo sapiens.

Related Links:
 • Eren's Paper - Uncorrected Proof
 • Metin Eren website
 • C. Garth Sampson website
 • BBC News
 • Agence France Presse
 • The Washington Post
 • The Independent
 • The Discovery Channel
 • Science Daily
 • MedicineNet
 • South Africa News 24
 • Sci-Tech Today
 • University of Exeter

Archaeologists often use the development of stone blades and their assumed efficiency as proof of Homo sapiens' superior intellect. To test this, Eren's team analyzed the data to compare the number of tools produced, how much cutting-edge was created, the efficiency in consuming raw material and how long tools lasted.

Blades were first produced by Homo sapiens during their colonization of Europe from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago. This has traditionally been thought to be a dramatic technological advance, helping Homo sapiens out-compete, and eventually eradicate, their Stone Age cousins. Yet when the research team analyzed their data there was no statistical difference between the efficiency of the two technologies. In fact, their findings showed that in some respects the flakes favored by Neanderthals were more efficient than the blades adopted by Homo sapiens.

The Neanderthals, believed to be a different species from Homo sapiens, evolved in Ice Age Europe, while the latter evolved in Africa before spreading out to the rest of the world around 50-40,000 years ago. Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 28,000 years ago, suggesting at least 10,000 years of overlap and possible interaction between the two species in Europe.

Many long-held beliefs suggesting why the Neanderthals went extinct have been debunked in recent years. Research has already shown that Neanderthals were as good at hunting as Homo sapiens and had no clear disadvantage in their ability to communicate. Now, these latest findings add to the growing evidence that Neanderthals were no less intelligent than our ancestors.

Eren's paper, Are Upper Paleolithic blade cores more productive than Middle Paleolithic discoidal cores? A replication experiment, is co-authored by Aaron Greenspan, president of Think Computer Corporation, and C. Garth Sampson, professor emeritus of archaeology at SMU.

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