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August 26, 2008 — Research by UK and American
scientists has struck another blow to the theory that Neanderthals
(Homo neanderthalensis) became extinct because they were less
intelligent than our ancestors (Homo sapiens). The research team has
shown that early stone tool technologies developed by our species, Homo
sapiens, were no more efficient than those used by Neanderthals.
Published in the Journal of Human Evolution, their discovery debunks
a textbook belief held by archaeologists for more than 60 years.
The team from the University of Exeter, Southern Methodist
University, Texas State University, and the Think Computer Corporation,
spent three years flintknapping (producing stone tools). They recreated
stone tools known as 'flakes,' which were wider tools originally used
by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and 'blades,' a narrower stone
tool later adopted by Homo sapiens. Archaeologists often use the
development of stone blades and their assumed efficiency as proof of
Homo sapiens' superior intellect. To test this, 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
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.
The Neanderthals, believed to be a different species from Homo
sapiens, evolved in Ice Age Europe, while the latter evolved in Africa
before spreading out to the rest of the world around 50-40,000 years
ago. Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 28,000 years ago,
suggesting at least 10,000 years of overlap and possible interaction
between the two species in Europe.
Many long-held beliefs suggesting why the Neanderthals went extinct
have been debunked in recent years. Research has already shown that
Neanderthals were as good at hunting as Homo sapiens and had no clear
disadvantage in their ability to communicate. Now, these latest
findings add to the growing evidence that Neanderthals were no less
intelligent than our ancestors.
Metin Eren, an MA Experimental Archaeology student at the University
of Exeter and lead author on the paper comments: "Our research disputes
a major pillar holding up the long-held assumption that Homo sapiens
were more advanced than Neanderthals. It is time for archaeologists to
start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct while
our ancestors survived. Technologically speaking, there is no clear
advantage of one tool over the other. When we think of Neanderthals, we
need to stop thinking in terms of 'stupid' or 'less advanced' and more
in terms of 'different.'"
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 University of Exeter is the only university in the world to
offer a degree course in Experimental Archaeology. This strand of
archaeology focuses on understanding how people lived in the past by
recreating their activities and replicating their technologies. Eren
says: "It was only by spending three years in the lab learning how to
physically make these tools that we were able to finally replicate them
accurately enough to come up with our findings."
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation of the USA and the Exeter Graduation Fund.
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