Those idiot savant Neandertals

By Razib Khan | March 13, 2013 5:10 am

Another Neandertal paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. But, because there is a delay between when the press is released to talk about it, and when it goes live, I haven’t gotten a look at the primary material. There’s a lot of juicy stuff in this piece at NBC Science though, Brain comparison suggests that Neanderthals lacked social skills. The two scientists giving quotes, Chris Stringer and Robin Dunbar, know their stuff (one of Dunbar’s graduate students also contributed heavily). In case you don’t know Stringer, he is the paleoanthropologist who was most forceful in pushing for the “Out of Africa” model. Dunbar is the popularizer of Dunbar’s number. I’m assuming Stringer brings the anatomy to the game, while Dunbar frames the bigger theoretical picture. Basically the morphology of the cranium implies that Neandertals may have allocated more of their cognitive capacity to vision and coordination, and less to social activities (because there’s not as much room for the latter). This explains how Neandertals could have a larger cranial capacity than modern humans (they did, though so did Ice Age modern humans) but be somewhat less “intelligent” than us (regular readers know I’m not a big fan of scare quotes for intelligence, but in this case I think it’s warranted).

The main problem I have isn’t the conclusion. It’s plausible enough. But the whole framework of understanding the difference between ourselves and Neandertals has changed in the past 10 years. In short, 10 years ago it might be defensible to assert Neandertals were another species.  This is not so today. Rather, most of us are Neandertals (in part). When Richard Klein wrote the Dawn of Human Culture the chasm between Neandertals and humans in a phylogenetic sense was large. This made more plausible sharp and crisp differences in traits between the two distinct and separate populations. Now it is harder to maintain that cordon, because it seems likely there was admixture between modern humans and Neandertals. The difference between Neandertals and moderns has now become one of degree, rather than kind. So, for example, the idea that Neandertals were at the far end of the autism spectrum based on some suggestive genes.

Papers will be published and careers will be made positing traits which led to the downfall of Neandertals. But until the phylogenetic origin of our own lineage, and possibly those of sister lineages, becomes more rock solid I think this is not particularly useful. We can’t bring back Neandertals and run experiments, so any hypothesis and inference generation system must be interpreted in light of background assumptions. Currently we are picking up signs of punctuated admixture events, but what if there was more constant gene flow between different human lineages? The behavioral differences may be subtle indeed if the latter occurred.

Why we are not mostly Neandertal is I think more soluble right now than understanding the evolution of language. But I don’t think there’s any problem right now in confidently admitting that we really don’t know a lot of things.

MORE ABOUT: Neandertals
  • Karl Zimmerman

    I find it interesting that these sort of arguments are still valid when it comes to discussing the reason for “extinction” of Neandertals, but not, for example, Tasmanians. It shows that we still (as you note, erroneously), put Neandertals into the “not people” mental category. “Not people” can have genetic differences in behavior, aptitudes, and generalized fitness, but “people” cannot. I’m not saying, of course, that Tasmanians died out because they were genetically inferior, just that if you changed the names, many of the arguments used are essentially interchangeable with late 19th century scientific racism.

    One might presume that, given we now know admixture has occurred, that we will eventually reclassify them into the “people” slot, at which point (presuming no wider change in culture) theorizing biological reasons for their failure as a distinct human population will fall out of favor, with cultural reasons (for example, not adapting to the open steppe tundra environment like modern humans) coming to the fore. However, given Neandertals do not have either modern groups descended from them to a large degree, nor passionate advocates in the social sciences, this may not happen anyway.

  • razibkhan
  • UncleTomRukusInWhiteHeaven

    Do women have smaller brains than men on average when adjusted for Sexual dimorphism?

  • Robert Ford

    “As for brain size, Eskimos have larger-than-average
    brains (and score higher on IQ tests than other hunter-gatherers) while Australian aborigines, Pygmies, and Bushmen have smaller-than-average brains.”

  • Krishna Pillai

    Just 13 Neandertthal skulls and 32 contemporary AMH skulls. Light on data and very heavy on conjecture.
    Their eyesight was too good and they couldn’t hunt rabbits and they didn’t have Facebook! How could they not become extinct.
    Nothing wrong with some fantastic conjecture of course.

  • BKK Gemini or Taurus

    I don’t mean to be pedantic, but it’s “scare quotes”. Unless “square quotes” is your own special term that I don’t know. I can be like a Neandertal sometimes.

  • Jean Manco

    It’s not just cortical size. Matthias Meyer et al., A high-coverage genome sequence from an archaic Denisovan individual, Science, Vol. 338 no. 6104 (October 2012) pp. 222-226 looked at DNA sites highly conserved among primates and that have changed on the modern human lineage after separation from Denisovan ancestors. Among the top 23 of these, eight affect genes that are associated with brain function or nervous system development.

  • Karch_Buttreau

    I find it weird that larger eyes would be some kind of extreme cold weather adaptation when Eskimos have come up with their snow goggles to prevent snow blindness. Perhaps the Neandertals were nocturnal hunters?

    Hmm, are people with more Neandertal in them more prone to being night owls? East Asians apparently have more Neandertal than Europeans. It’s my impression that there are a lot more night owls amongst East Asians than amongst Europeans.

    Also, for fun, the snp Rs12571093 corresponds to optic disc size, and roughly 1/3 of us are at least heterozygous for the Neandertal variant.

    • Skadhi_the_Raverner

      You’re not the only one to have that thought about the neanderthals.

    • de Broglie

      I thought recent studies showed that Europeans were the largest percentage Neanderthal.

  • Rudel

    It’s “solvable” not “soluble.” I find the use of “soluble” in its secondary definition an academic decadency.

  • Generalista

    It is absolutely preposterous to claim that Neanderthals would lose, or could not develop, general intelligent brain functions because they needed visual brain real estate instead – when we know this is not true for any extant species studied, including humans – for which some of the same authors have made studies confirming the latter.

    Now, as to the idiot savant Neanderthals, I have brought that up numerous times over the past decades – and that makes sense, to me. They had a type of conservative behavior that seems not so much limited by ability, but by the inability to constructively move out of the highly-restrained autistic behavioral box. They probably could dream things, but were left in a never-ending conflict of the contradiction and logical disconnect between that and the past and the apparently identical-to-past present.


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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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