Refuting evolutionary materialism

By Razib Khan | August 26, 2008 3:22 am

Update: Please read Sandman’s response after you look over this post….
New Evidence Debunks ‘Stupid’ Neanderthal Myth:

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 analysed 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 favoured by Neanderthals were more efficient than the blades adopted by Homo sapiens.

Now that it is established that there is no technical advantage to blades, why did Homo sapiens adopt this technology during their colonization of Europe? The researchers suggest that the reason for this shift may be more cultural or symbolic. Eren explains: “Colonizing a continent isn’t easy. Colonizing a continent during the Ice Age is even harder. So, for early Homo sapiens colonizing 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.’”

The cite is Metin I. Eren, Aaron Greenspan, C. Garth Sampson, Are Upper Paleolithic blade cores more productive than Middle Paleolithic discoidal cores? A replication experiment, in The Journal of Human Evolution. It isn’t on their website yet. The ScienceDaily writeup is a bit clumsy here and almost superfluously dumb there. It could have been about 1/4 as long.
In any case, sometimes I wish I know more evolutionary anthropology. John and Sandman have a comparative advantage here. Nevertheless, Henry Harpending told me years ago that the changes in tool type tens of thousands of years ago were not as comprehensible as they might be if they dovetailed perfectly with rise of man the modern. Neandertals had larger cranial capacities than our own species, so that should give us one prior as to why we shouldn’t assume they were much less intelligent than our own kind. Additionally, if we look at our history we note that many times conquests were not achieved through great technological imbalances. The Mongols for example were superior in terms of organization and human capital.1 Some of the same factors combined with historical contingencies played a role in the Arab expansion and the rise of Islam. Certainly the Spaniards were superior in technology to the natives of the New World, but the 90% declines in population within one generation due to disease susceptibility probably played a greater proximate role in the demographic replacement.
One could make the case that technological differences only became the preponderant independent variables in conquests and population replacements within the last 500 years. The combination of Quinine and the Maxim gun opened up Africa in the late 1800s. Ironically we might be projecting our own Whiggish age and its dominant dynamics back to the prehistorical period!
1 – Nearly all Mongol males were capable of being cavalrymen because of the skills of the nomadic lifestyle.

  • Confused in Cambridge

    Doesn’t using blades make far more efficient use of the material than flakes (i.e. cutting edge per unit mass of flint)?

  • Dunc

    From the link: “the team analysed 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.”
    Anybody got a good link showing precisely what the differences between these two technologies are? The terms “blade” and “flake” are clearly being used in a very precise sense which I am not familiar with.

  • Steevl

    Or perhaps homo sapiens just didn’t realise the blades weren’t as efficient; they probably didn’t analyse and compare the data themselves. There are plenty of people around these days wearing magnetic bracelets to improve their circulation and taking homeopathic medicine whenever they have the sniffles – not for cultural or symbolic reasons, but because they don’t realise a subjective feeling of improvement doesn’t correlate with reality.

  • Dunc

    Or perhaps homo sapiens just didn’t realise the blades weren’t as efficient; they probably didn’t analyse and compare the data themselves.

    I dunno – the efficiency of a technology which involves a lot of physical effort is the sort of thing you notice pretty quickly, and it’s not something you can easily fool yourself about. “I feel a bit better than I did yesterday” is something you can easily be wrong about, whereas “I can make blades from this nodule in time” isn’t, especially when you’re mining those nodules with antler picks and rib bones.
    [OT: I'd also argue that the popularity of "alternative medicine" is very much based on cultural factors - that's exactly why a whole rag-bag of completely different things gets lumped together under the "CAM" label. The only thing they have in common is their cultural significance.]

  • Dunc

    Boo – that should have read “I can make <x> blades from this nodule in <y> time”

  • Brian Schmidt

    I don’t know if it’s feasible to separate technological from cultural factors. I think it’s likely there was a genetic mutation 50k years ago that led to worldwide population replacement, quite possibly in language capabilities, allowing moderns to replace Neandertals even if our non-language skills are no better.
    Re technology in general, I don’t know how to argue about its preponderance as a force, but certainly it’s been a major force for thousands of years as farmers and herders have crowded out hunter-gatherers (or had farming practices adopted by hunters, very difficult to distinguish based on archaelogical records).

  • razib

    (or had farming practices adopted by hunters, very difficult to distinguish based on archaelogical records
    genetics has been able to shed light on this. there was some replacement, but it looks as if in europe it was more than not cultural diffusion.

  • Jason Malloy

    Evidence has suggested Neanderthals were at least as intelligent as humans for a while now. A crucial difference is that Neanderthals were insular while humans had active trade networks that even extended back into Africa. I could see this as being a function of historical contingency or different social natures.

  • John Emerson

    This is peripheral and off topic: I think that the best way to think of the Mongols is as very highly specialized, rather than as in any way technologically underdeveloped. (This does not really contradict what Razib said, but he has given me a chance to say something that might be illuminating to some).
    The first specialization is environmental. The various steppe peoples figured out a way to exploit the arid steppe that was better than anyone else’s way. It involved sheep, horses, oxen and oxcarts, the compound reflex bow, yurts, and clothing allowing outdoor activity at -30 degree temperatures. They had carpenters and blacksmiths and in many cases smelted their own metal. In short, they were not non-technological or technologically weak; they were state-of-the-art in a very specialized way.
    Their second specialization was military and political, which is somewhat implied in what Razib said. This accounts for the relative unimportance of agriculture on the steppe: while the steppe is generally not very productive, it’s possible to grow grain there and this was often done. (The Scythians were grain exporters, but this may be the very reason why they were vulnerable to the Sarmatians coming from the east). There are two reasons why it was not done more: first, agriculture requires a commitment to defensive warfare — exactly the weakness of the sedentary world that the steppe peoples exploited — and steppe agriculturalists were highly vulnerable to raids by rival peoples.
    And second, it’s just comparative advantage. The steppe peoples had many ways of getting grain from the sedentary peoples: raiding, tribute, trade, and taxation. Why would they want to grow it, especially given the peculiar difficulties (not impossibilities) of steppe agriculture.

  • Wesley Parish

    I’d say the point Sandman raised is the most important – that these tools did not exist in a vacuum, and the major difference between flakes and blades was more a cultural thing – and that the blades could be used in wider contexts than merely grasslands and forest hunting, which is what flakes appear to have been “specialized” for.
    In this case, the question of why one human species outcompeted the other is easy to answer – one species had access to a much wider set of prey.

  • plschwartz

    What silliness!
    Since the “scientists” cannot find any advantages for the HS weapons they resort to explanations which cannot be verified.
    What would be more correct is for them to admit that they have not yet discovered any possible advantages for the HS weapons.Perhaps Academic types are used to performing meaningless tasks (writing papers) to satisfy obscure rituals (tenure). Thus the well know “Leisure of the Theory Class”
    Those who earn by the sweat of their brow have better things to do. Such as maximizing efficiency.

  • free thinker

    Something I have been curious about. I have often seen tool assemblages for Cro Magnon man which included a lot of bone needles and awls, but I have never seen something comparable for Neanderthals. Better winter clothing would have been a huge technological advantage. Does anyone know to what extent Neanderthals used sewing to make their clothing?

  • Sandgroper

    A seemingly significant difference not mentioned – HS had projectile weapons; maybe not the bow by then, but very likely throwing spears, possibly long before. Neanderthals had only thrusting weapons and hand axes.
    Maybe I am missing something fundamental, but that seems like a pretty big technological advantage.

  • John Emerson

    Plschwartz apparently does not need research, since he just naturally knows things.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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