Size doesn't always matter

By Razib Khan | November 9, 2010 12:26 am

Neandertals famously had larger cranial capacities than modern humans, and, have gone through multiple phases of de- and re-humanization. A few weeks ago there was a revision of the idea that Neandertals in France ~30,000 years ago adopted some aspects of modern human culture through diffusion. This was a support for the Neandertal “ooga-booga” thesis. In contrast last spring we were treated to the possibility that most human beings have trace but non-trivial Neandertal ancestry. This naturally made Neandertals seem a little less primitive, since we don’t like to perceive ourselves as primitive.

A new article in Current Biology supports the position for the primitive Neanderal, Brain development after birth differs between Neanderthals and modern humans:

Neanderthals had brain sizes comparable to modern humans, but their brain cases were elongated and not globular as in Homo sapiens…It has, therefore, been suggested that modern humans and Neanderthals reached large brain sizes along different evolutionary pathways…Here, we assess when during development these adult differences emerge. This is critical for understanding whether differences in the pattern of brain development might underlie potential cognitive differences between these two closely related groups. Previous comparisons of Neanderthal and modern human cranial development have shown that many morphological characteristics separating these two groups are already established at the time of birth…and that the subsequent developmental patterns of the face are similar, though not identical…Here, we show that a globularization phase seen in the neurocranial development of modern humans after birth is absent from Neanderthals.

In other words there are developmental differences between Neandertals and modern humans. They’re a little less circumspect in the text, “We find that the modern human pattern of brain development is derived compared to Neanderthals.” The implication here is that the Neandertals exhibit the ancestral pattern, in common with chimpanzees. Below is figure 1, which summarizes their results:


(link acknowledge, Dienekes)


Comments (8)

  1. Katharine

    Why is ‘primitive’ such an issue?

    At least to me, this makes me think mostly that perhaps humanity may be either 1) a little more primitive than we think or 2) requiring of somewhat less than thought to be ‘non-primitive’.

  2. Chris T

    This is fortuitous timing; I was discussing this very subject on Overcoming Bias in regards to the odds of human type intelligence arising.

  3. I’m going to echo Katharine here and point out that primitive vs. derived does not a value judgment make. It’s certainly is an interesting direction and could tell us more about the differences between Neandertals and modern humans in terms of cognitive differences, but it seems to me as only an initial hint.

  4. Meng: I know that. You, Katharine, and Razib know that. The general public who doesn’t understand what terms like “primitive” and “derived” mean in this context doesn’t know that. Primitive, in the common usage, has a negative connotation.

  5. Sandgroper

    Someone anonymous posted this informed-sounding (to me, but what do I know?) comment on Dienekes’ blog two years ago, in response to the question “Were Neanderthals more intelligent than us?”:

    “NO because their neo cortex was not as dense, not as complex; they had more of the regions of brain that we call ‘old cortex’, ie limbic etc. The inside of their skulls shows far fewer folds in the cortex. So they had bigger regions of the brain that were more primitive as well. Its more about how big the frontal cortical regions are than brain volume per se. A huge cerebellum and amygdala wont make you smart.”

  6. Sandgroper

    Erm, sorry, not all that anonymous, and his/her blog reading list suggests I should be wary of how accurate the comment might have been, in an area where I have no basis for judging.


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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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