Neanderthals were not stupid, just a bit anti-social


"CRUDE, boorish and slow- witted" - even dictionaries give Neanderthals a hard time. But our prehistoric cousins were in reality just as smart as we are and did not die out as a result of a lack of brain power, according to a new archaeological study.

Until now, the leading theory of why the Neanderthals disappeared has been that a lack of intelligence meant they were less efficient hunters.

But a team of US archaeologists believe they met their evolutionary end because of a failure to maintain social links with other groups, unlike modern humans, who travelled widely, making the friends who would help them during hard times.

Working in the Caucasus region of modern-day Georgia, the scientists discovered evidence of highly skilled hunting behaviour by the Neanderthals that required an understanding of yearly animal migration patterns and the planning of traps to catch them.

But they also found there was a crucial difference between Neanderthals and homo sapiens. The Neanderthals tended to be anti-social, staying in small hunter-gatherer groups, while the sapiens were "routinely" travelling distances of 60 miles and meeting other groups.

This meant that if an area became hunted out or a more powerful rival took over, the Neanderthals had no-one to turn to while the modern humans did.

Dr Dan Adler, of Connecticut University, who led the study, which appeared in the journal Current Anthropology, said: "Any individual Neanderthal, I don't imagine, knew more than 20, 30 or 50 people. That's by virtue of the fact they didn't get around as much. Maybe they didn't want to. Modern humans seem to get around a lot. They were routinely covering distances of at least 100km.

"If you find yourself in an area where the resources just aren't there any more - it's a bad season or you have killed all the game - you need to move into another territory where other people are. If you don't know them the chances are they are not going to like that. Modern humans would have known these people."

Neanderthals seem to have had little interest in their appearance, compared to modern humans, a sign that group identity was not something they considered to be important.

"We have no indication that Neanderthals really paid much attention to who other people were and they didn't try to signal to other people who they were," Dr Adler said.

"Modern humans were obsessed with this. They were spending a lot of time and energy on how they looked. They cared more about how they looked and were more style conscious."

However, this lack of fashion sense should not reflect badly on their intelligence, Dr Adler said.

"It's fairly clear that Neanderthals were pretty smart. They could hunt just as well [as modern humans] and they had expert knowledge about the environment," he said.

"Put you and a Neanderthal in the woods and the latter would probably survive a lot longer.

"It's within the social realm where modern humans have an advantage. I think they knew more people and lived a richer life in terms of cultural contact than the Neanderthals did. But they were both smart."