The Underrated Genius of Neanderthals

By Stephen E. Nash | January 24, 2017 4:43 pm
caveman

Geico’s “so easy a caveman can do it” advertising campaign incorrectly minimized the intelligence of Neanderthals. (Credit: Shutterstock)

(This post originally appeared in the online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

For the last dozen years or so, Geico Insurance has run commercials featuring Neanderthals in modern contexts. The story line varies, but the take-home point does not: Switching to Geico is so easy that “even a caveman can do it,” says the tag line. The Neanderthal’s feelings are invariably hurt, and a stereotype gets perpetuated. Do Neanderthals really deserve such derision?

Popularly known as “cavemen,” Neanderthals were ancestral humans who lived in Western Europe, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and in southwestern and central Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. They lived in glacial environments during the Ice Age as well as in warmer time periods. Their foreheads were low and receding in contrast to the high, almost vertical foreheads of modern humans. They also had protruding faces and heavy brow ridges above their eyes. While it’s an open question whether you’d recognize a Neanderthal if you saw one on the street, groomed and dressed in modern clothes, I like to think they’d blend in at my museum’s holiday party.

The archaeological record from which we attempt to reconstruct Neanderthal behavior is exquisite—if you like stone tools. There are dozens of sites spanning hundreds of thousands of years. For well over a century, archaeologists have analyzed Neanderthal stone tools to understand how they were made, used, and (potentially) classified. Far less is known about Neanderthal work in bone, wood, or other perishables, for these materials do not preserve in the archaeological record. We do know, however, that Neanderthals buried some of their dead, so they probably enjoyed some concept of an afterlife.

Neanderthals have been the brunt of cruel jokes and the target of scientific and popular discrimination since the discovery of a Neanderthal skull cap in 1856 at Germany’s Feldhofer cave. It hasn’t helped that the first reasonably complete skeleton of a Neanderthal, found at La Chapelle aux Saints in southern France in 1908, was a toothless old man who suffered terribly from arthritis and other ailments. When first reconstructed and depicted by paleontologist Marcellin Boule, the skeleton was drawn stooped over and as if he was shuffling. The old marketing adage “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression” appears to ring true: Boule’s reconstruction remains remarkably influential even today.

But, I offer a full disclosure: I love Neanderthals. The old man of La Chapelle was not a good, representative sample of his healthier brothers and sisters, most of whom, if they survived childhood, were hardy folk. Thankfully, more recent scientific reconstructions of Neanderthals allow for their thoughts, senses of humor, and foresight, if not a fully modern culture. And what about those pesky stone tools?

The La Chapelle aux Saints skeleton, whose replicated skull is shown here (top), with its toothless mouth, does not represent a healthy Neanderthal. (Credit: Jacklee/Wikimedia Commons)

Our human ancestors have been making stone tools for 3.3 million years. For over half of that time, the tools they created were unsophisticated and were fashioned only when needed. Simply find a piece of fine-grained stone, such as flint, that breaks in reasonably predictable ways. Strike that stone “core” with another, harder rock (the “hammerstone”) to knock off a “flake.” Presto! You’ve got a stone tool. That flake can cut, scrape, or pierce depending on your needs, the sharpness of the edge, and the shape of the flake.

But about 1.5 million years ago something began to change. Our ancestors started making stone tools that were more standardized, often in the form of teardrop-shaped hand axes. Some archaeologists would say those hand axes were “curated”—created and maintained in order to maximize their use-life and functional utility. No longer were stone tools expediently produced; rather, their care and creation required cognition and foresight.

About 325,000 years ago, a radically new stone tool manufacturing process burst onto the scene: the Levallois technique. Named after the archaeological site outside of Paris where the technique was first recognized and described by archaeologists in the 1860s, the process allows a toolmaker to create a tool of predictable size and shape.

For the Levallois technique, the toolmaker takes an oblong, relatively flat flint nodule and strikes flakes off the thinner sides of the core all the way around its circumference. She then flips the nodule over and strikes flakes off its front side, then flips it again to do the same on the back. Finally, and after a lot of such preparation, the toolmaker strikes one end of the core to remove a large and distinctive “Levallois flake” off its front. By design, the edge of the Levallois flake will follow the contours of previous flake scars, creating a very nice, thin, and predictably shaped tool.

The invention of the Levallois technique, which creates a predictably shaped Levallois flake, is the first tangible evidence of abstract thought in the archaeological record. (Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Wikimedia Commons)

The technique is anything but expedient—it takes time, effort, and skill to craft a Levallois core. Properly prepared, such a core can yield several flakes of predictable size and shape, all of which can be used as tools. Archaeologists have therefore pointed to its appearance as a watershed moment in human cognition—the degree of foresight and planning required to create a Levallois core is far greater than that required for all previous stone tool technologies, including hand axes.

Why is this important? Because for the first time we can see our ancestors focused on an abstract concept—a flake of predictable size and shape—that did not become manifest until the final Levallois flake was removed from the core.

And guess who used the Levallois technique: Our friends the Neanderthals did!

As for whether Neanderthals had the capacity for language and symbolic thought, the jury is still out. Recent research on a Neanderthal hyoid bone, which is found in the neck and supports the tongue muscles, suggests that they had the physical capacity for language. Their brains were on average larger than those of fully modern humans, and research points toward new evidence for genuinely symbolic thought. Given the vagaries of archaeological preservation, we will never know the complete range of physical objects Neanderthals produced. By extension, it is highly unlikely we will ever fully understand their capacity for creating abstract thoughts and symbols, much less language. Ah, oui.

Michelangelo once said that he “saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” A Neanderthal flintknapper once saw a tool in flint and chipped until she set it free—less romantic perhaps but evolutionarily more important.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    from about 400,000 to 40,000 years age” Sure, before the Earth was created.
    recognize a Neanderthal if you saw one on the street” Carlos Tevez (Argentina, Boca Juniors, soccer).
    A Neanderthal flintknapper once saw a tool in flint and chipped until she set it free” Flintnappette. Flintnappteuse, Flintnappesse, Flintnappenne, Flintnappelle, Flintnappeure, Flintnappouille, Flintnappouche…Did she get a trophy?

    • OWilson

      Those stone tools aren’t biodegradable, so maybe they got a lot of them like we do today, just digging them up from the usual likely spots, caves, high promontories, confluences of major rivers, eroded river banks, peat preserved left over hunting prey, etc.

      Beware of extrapolating from limited finds.

      Every new find does not necessarily mean a new theory. A Roman coin found in the Canadian woods, could merely mean a some camper lost his lucky charm!

      • Maia

        True. But I;m not clear on what we are supposedly worried about here. There are many lines of evidence for Neanderthal intelligence and other dimensions of human similarity, not just one or two. Not sure it’s true of you, but many seem, er, prejudiced, against our N. ancestors. Wonder why?

        • OWilson

          Good question, and goes the the very heart of why I am a regular poster on Discovery blogs.

          I’m a fan of open minded speculation, not certitude, in matters we know very little about.

          An odd opinion like mine, is easily rationally dismissed, but dogma is very, very hard to reverse once adopted, because its priests become wedded to it for life.

          This can send cosmology, anthropology, climatology, archaeology and all the other “ologies” on wrong direction for years, even milennials!

          • Maia

            Agree! Yes.

          • Erik Bosma

            Tell me about it OW… took me over 40 years to exorcise all the lies I was told as a kid. I still have problems with them. They’re like doors that appear out of nowhere and then slam suddenly in the face of my own objectivity. But, the first step is forgiving my parents and grand-parents because they did not know any better – poor souls.

          • OWilson

            When you finally realize that all politicians, indeed all humans, are flawed and most politicians are totally corrupt, there’s a sadness.

            The world I was born into was ravaged by war, but people had faith in the future. Everybody had learned their lesson, and now could be trusted to try to make the world a better place as we moved ever onward and upwards.

            Fascism had been defeated, and Communism would eventually collapse, as it did.

            Then they start up again under a different guise.

            We have billions of folks that want us to live in their religious world Sharia Reich, with a militant wing of the operation killing and displacing millions again.

            On the other side, we have the Hard Left, who are determined to put us on the path to socialism. Once that is in place it is only a small step to a Dear Leader. :)

            It took generations of “education” popular culture and a lying media to get us here, and it looks like they will not let it go, even if it means destroying a duly elected President, and encouraging civil unrest and defiance of law and order.

            Even if this guy succeeds he can only hold them off for so long.

            The question is, is there a vestigal collective memory of the personal freedom we used to celebrate, and our brave warriors gave their lives for, or are we just talking to fools, who are staring intently at their Iphones, for news of the Kardashians, or Bachelor? :)

          • Erik Bosma

            As long as greed and power over others dominate our way of thinking, things will never change. Once in awhile we get someone like Gandhi or the like (the past president of Uruguay is another) but they don’t tell the lies we want to hear. They tell us to share and care for each other and our ‘karma’ will lead us to safety. (Or whatever you call it.) So we kill them or ignore them. At some point in genus homo’s past we were involved in some very serious near-extinction events which almost wiped us out down to a few thousand creating a genetic drift from which we’ve never recovered. The answer is to believe that everything will be OK even though that type of thinking rails against every fibre of our being. The answer is not in ‘stuff’ or ‘status’ but that’s what they sell us so they can get stuff and status and that’s what we buy so we think we can get stuff and status.

          • Erik Bosma

            I’m still waiting, patiently I might add, for my flying car.

        • okiejoe

          I think it’s because the idea is a thumb in the eye of Creationism as stated in Genesis. Can’t have humans that don’t look exactly like us, can we?

          • OWilson

            Good point!

            Man was made in the image of god. They don’t see God as a neanderthal.

            He has to look saintly and strike the pose! :)

          • AlDavisJr

            As you certainly know, that biblical phrase is twisted. The truth is “And man made god in his own image.” 😉

          • Erik Bosma

            Just discovered through a gene search that, besides the 96% Northern European (no surprise there); 1% mixed with everything from Ashkenazi Jew to Finnish; I also have 3% Neanderthal. I’m very proud of that because it is a high score. Hopefully I inherited the good bits. I have always thought that the Neanderthals were the good guys and I believe that there fate was: for the men – eaten; for the women and children – slaves and concubines. Fortunately they passed on their wonderment and awe of nature on to their descendants.

        • Erik Bosma

          I had an award winning counter rave or it could have been a supporting rant or a bit of both about how smart Neanderthals were and how we probably learned everything from them before we ate them and it got deleted. WTF??

          • Maia

            Please post it again. I know it’s a pain, but sometimes things go wrong and I’d be interested to hear your take.

          • Erik Bosma

            I have repeated a bit above but there is a lot available on line as well. Just don’t be deceived by fancy rhetoric and speech-writing.

    • applecreeker

      4004 BC I assume? Defend God, if He needs it, from some other pulpit.

    • Dr Bob Rich

      You know, the Church persecuted Galileo and Copernicus, but now accepts their findings. Maybe you should follow.

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  • Jim Alderson

    Only Europeans and Asians have any of their genes. Africans do not.

    • nancy_hall_91@mail.ru

      I’ve earned $104,000 in last twelve months by doing an online job from my house a­n­d I manage to accomplish that by working part-time for several hours /day. I used an earning opportunity I came across online and I am so amazed that I was able to earn so much money on the side. It’s newbie friendly and I’m so grateful that i discovered it. Here is what i do…FACEBOOK.COM/Work-at-home-for-New-zealand-Australia-Canada-US-and-UK-245151529228936/app/208195102528120/

      • applecreeker

        Neanderthals had the sense NOT to put junk ads on cave walls: you do not.

    • Bobby

      Hmmm… I do not claim to know if your assertion is true or false and sincerely it does not matter… I have an lot of reservation about evolution anyway… I am just wondering though if your post is also an insinuation that Asians and Europeans are superior…

  • disqusaurus_rex

    There is actually some pretty significant evidence for Neanderthal language. They have the identical foxp2 gene, which is an expensive evolutionary modification. Furthermore Neanderthals manufactured an anaerobic tar using birch pitch in the Harz mountains 70,000 years ago. This is a technology so advanced that there is no conceivable way they could’ve invented it without language.

  • John Do’h

    There is so much prejudiced ideas about Neanderthals, modern humans want to feel superior… Neanderthals were PEOPLE, as individuals they probably were very similar to modern humans if put in the same conditions. Maybe not exactly the same, but not inferior.

    As things change some species survive and spread, some go extinct. The idea that superior species survive over inferior species is overly simplistic. Squirrels, Rabbits, and White Tailed Deer live in my city currently… they survive in the city because they have adapted and the predators did not, and humans do not currently hunt them. Are Squirrels, Rabbits, and White Tailed Deer evolutionary superior to all of the other animals that disappeared? Were the local Native Americans evolutionary inferior to imported Europeans? The answers are not as simple as who survived in the end. Maybe modern humans were just better at being jerks?

    • OWilson

      Adaptation IS the simple answer.

      Adapt, or die!

      • Jersey McJones

        You can’t adapt to your entire village dropping dead in a matter of days from an exotic disease. There IS no simple answer.

        JMJ

  • Isaac42

    The Geico ads never once, to my knowledge, called its cavemen Neanderthals. They could just as easily have been Cro Magnons.

  • Steffeni

    It’s interesting to note that there’s apparently a correlation between Neanderthal genes and IQ. The East Asians who have the highest IQs and Caucasians have the highest percentage of Neanderthal genes. Perhaps, the Neanderthals had a larger cranial capacity and had to survive in more difficult environments and these genes may have been passed on through intermixing with the Cro-Magnon that came later.

  • Tomi Aalto

    Neanderthal genome is at 99.84% similar to ours. Probably even closer because cytosine bases easily turn to thymine after death. Their morphological differences were due to epigenetic control of gene expression. Neanderthals were perfect humans.

  • Dr Bob Rich

    Since there is a considerable Neanderthal component in the modern genome, it is even wrong to refer to them as a separate species: they interbred with the others. So, they were merely humans who had somewhat different bodies, no doubt in order to handle the cold better.

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