Neanderthal Brains Show Fatal Lack of Social Skills

By Breanna Draxler | March 13, 2013 10:23 am

Replicas of the La Ferrassie 1 (Neanderthal) and Predmosti 3 (early modern) skulls. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum London.

The brains of Neanderthals were about the same size as those of humans, but they were not organized the same way. In a study published yesterday, researchers at Oxford show that much of the Neanderthal brain was dedicated to vision and movement instead of the higher order thinking characteristic of the human brain. They say this limited brain capacity could also explain Neanderthals’ eventual demise.

The researchers compared Neanderthal fossils with the skeletons of ancient but anatomically modern humans. To get an idea of how much actual brain tissue once filled these skulls, the researchers calculated the ratio of brain to body size for the skeletons and compared them with the brain/body size ratios of living primates.

They found that Neanderthals dedicated a larger portion of their brain to controlling their movements than did modern humans, probably because of their larger body size. Likewise, limited daylight in Eurasia’s northern latitudes forced Neanderthals to evolve bigger eyes in order to process the light, compared to the smaller eyes of humans with origins in sunny Africa. The portion of the Neanderthal brain dedicated to vision is larger as a result, according to the results published Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Since Neanderthals used a greater proportion of their brain for basic motion and vision control, they didn’t have as much brain capacity left to innovate. For example, they had smaller parietal lobes, which humans use for navigation and language skills. When the Ice Age rolled around, Neanderthals couldn’t create complex societies or trade networks to overcome resource scarcities, which scientists think ultimately did them in.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • carolannie

    Well, that’s pretty weak. Why didn’t humans living in Northern Europe evolve eyesight accordingly? And don’t say because there wasn’t enough time, because that has been shown to be not correct.

    • Erin Whittey

      I was thinking the same thing, but the second link (“evolve bigger eyes”) actually goes to a study on modern humans that suggest orbit size and latitude are correlated. Go figure.

      There are a bunch of pretty weak links in this argument, though. First of all, they are in no way measuring the visual cortex; they’re using orbit size as a proxy. They’re also making some pretty big and outdated assumptions about how brain size and organization affects cognition. We no longer think that very specific areas of the brain are entirely responsible for specific cognitive processes, and we know that there’s a ton of variation between individuals in how the neural network develops.

      They also did some unexplained “correction” to brain size in Neanderthals to make the “standardized” volume smaller than modern humans. Riiiiight. Amazing how easy it is to make the argument that Neanderthals were stupid and therefore must have had small brains when you start out with that assumption and massage the data to fit.

      I’m additionally suspicious of any paper in a well-trodden research area like this where almost a third of the cited papers are the authors’ own publications. Including that link about eye size in modern humans that I mentioned above.

      • carolannie

        You actually went and looked stuff up. Thanks.

      • Mados

        Very good reply. I was super intrigued by the headline, but the content seems weak and speculative. The premise alone – Social skills, according to measuring the skeleton? Hm.

      • Neuroskeptic

        I blogged about the latitude-orbit size paper when it came out:

  • Stephen G Brown

    I think it was already explained in National Geographic. It was their incredibly high metabolic rate which did them in. Couldn’t take in enough carbs.

    • carolannie

      Oh, the rabbit theory.


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