For many years people have been attempting to identify differences between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis in an effort to understand why one species survived yet the other did not. Many of these alleged differences have fallen flat on their face, whilst others have achieved more success (albeit with a fair bit of controversy). Of this myriad of ideas, the most important are arguably those regarding technological differences between humans and their neanderthals cousins.
Homo neanderthalensis evolved in Europe, between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago from earlier European hominins. They were well suited to this environment, with a short stocky build which helps conserve body heat in the cold. Convergent evolution also prompted many human populations to also develop this adaptation. But it would seem that this was insufficient and they eventually succumbed to extinction ~30,000 years ago.
For over half of their time in Europe (130-36,000 years ago) neanderthals produced the Mousterian technological complex. This industry includes a range of techniques for creating a high quality toolkit, including the famous levallois technique. This method of creating stone tools involves preparing a core stone from which flakes can be removed and used. Since you prepared the core before hand, the flakes are already the shape you desire. Further, those truly skilled in the technique can remove the first flake in such a way that it prepares a second, allowing you to quickly get multiple flakes from a single core after the original preparation.
Whilst other industries and hominins also utilised the levallois technique, the neanderthals were the best at it. Even today only a handful of experimental archaeologists are capable of approaching the skill level neanderthals were exhibiting. On top of that, preparing a core requires that one has intent, long term memory and the ability to plan and make logical inferences about what the next step should be. In short, levallois means that neanderthals were clever.
Humans, however, one-upped the neanderthals in many aspects. Although they didn’t produce the levallois cores like neanderthals, they were able to create blades of a similar – if not better – quality than the flakes neanderthals were make. Further, the human blade techniques were able to create bladelets. These are small blades, offering two key advantages. First you can get more of them from the same amount of stone, increasing efficiency. Secondly, they’re smaller so are weight less allowing you to make lighter projectiles without sacrificing killing power.
On top of that humans also made tools from other materials, such as bone and antler. Although these materials are not has hard as stone they can be manipulated with more finesse, allowing the creation of very fine points and tools. Bone sewing needles, for example, are one of the many advantages this technique was able to bring. Perhaps this is why humans had better clothing.
Further, there’s the symbolism and art humans produced. Whilst neanderthals did bury some of their dead with grave goods, these finds couldn’t hold a candle to what humans placed with their deceased. A Russian individual from just before the last ice age, for example, is coated in pigment and buried with massive ivory spears and thousands of beads. Neanderthals buried with some antlers or animal bones simply aren’t in the same league. And that’s forgetting the actual art itself. Humans created the famous cave art, statuettes such as the venus figurines and ceramic “bangers” which produced a primitive fireworks display.
In essence, humans did everything neanderthals did and then some. But then we have had several thousand years of additional time to develop these technological advances. If neanderthals hadn’t disappeared, could neanderthals have also started to make art, bladelets and non-stone tools? Or was there some fundamental difference between the two and humans were just smarter?
A reasonable case can be made for the former position. Although the Mousterian did last for over 100,000 years it did not persist unchanged. Neanderthals had not reached the limit of their technical capacity, instead continuing to modify their technology. They even started to produce bladelets and blades on a par with what contemporary humans were manufacturing. Although these aren’t as common in neanderthal assemblages, this is nonetheless a “human” technology being made by non-humans.
And then there are the “transitional” industries made towards the end of the neanderthal’s reign. As humans began to enter Europe ~40,000 years ago the neanderthals began to produce new, advanced technology including bone and antler tools. These new technological complexes include a mixture of older Mousterian tools with new technology once thought to be unique to modern humans. Again, we’re faced with a clear example of “human” technology being made by non-humans.
However, the exact relationship between neanderthals and humans at this time is unclear. One of the famous “transitional” sites was also inhabited by humans for a period, indicating a distinct overlap between the two species. Might the transitional industries simply arise from mimicking the humans and their new technology? Whether it was the transitional or human industries which came first is very hard to identify, with the date of the first human technology being consistently pushed back.
Nonetheless, human technology was more advanced than neanderthal technology even if you ignore the later advances. ~28,000 years ago we were making ceramic figurines whilst the neanderthals were going extinct. The crux of the issue is whether those advances would’ve been forever beyond the capacity of the neanderthals. Unfortunately, that’s a question we can’t answer at this time making inferences about whether or not the neanderthals had an inferior technological ability impossible to make.
Even if we could, would the technological distinctions between the two species reflect differences in intellectual ability, providing a very plausible reason why we survived but neanderthals did not. However, care must be taken when making such inferences as they can often be based on unfounded assumptions. For example, “simple” tools don’t necessarily mean that their creator is less intelligent. Many human populations have not developed technological advances (and even sometimes lost advances their ancestors made) yet they aren’t less intelligent than any other human population.
However, these problems are not impossible to overcome. With better dating and techniques it could be possible to try and work out which species were smarter. Unfortunately doing so is currently beyond us, although the field holds great promise.
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|Roebroeks, W., 2008. Time for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe. Journal of Human Evolution, 55(5), pp.918–926.|