Was human technology superior to neanderthals’?

Why our neanderthal cousins died out is the source of intense debate in evolutionary anthropology, with a plethora of ideas being thrown back and forth between competing camps. Certainly I’ve written my fair share of posts on the subject. Sadly there is little definitive evidence


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ResearchBlogging.orgWhy our neanderthal cousins died out is the source of intense debate in evolutionary anthropology, with a plethora of ideas being thrown back and forth between competing camps. Certainly I’ve written my fair share of posts on the subject. Sadly there is little definitive evidence for any of them and so no single proposal has become the consensus opinion. Nonetheless, one of the more popular ideas is that technological differences between neanderthals and humans may have been responsible. Not only could this have given our species an edge but it might also mean that neanderthals were less intelligent than us.

Unfortunately trying to infer intelligence from technology is a notoriously difficult process, but even if we ignore that technological differences could’ve still played a key part in their demise. After all, human history is riddled with examples of technological superior groups decimating (or just flat our destroying) others. That said many of the proposed differences between neanderthal and human technology have been revealed to be non-existent. Blades and non-stone tools – such as those made of antler or bone – were once believed to distinguish Homo sapiens from Homo neanderthalensis but archaeology is showing that this is not the case: neanderthals did make blades and bone and antler tools.

A collection of some early European blades made by humans. A blade is simply a tool at least twice as tall as it is wide.

However blades are quite rare in neanderthal sites, being found much less frequently than in human camps. Although they were capable of making blades perhaps they had yet to fully realise the advantages of this technology? Again, we do see similar patterns in human history. Gunpowder, for example, was invented in the Far East but fully refined into a weapon of war in the Far West. It certainly seems plausible that by fully realising the benefit of blades humans still had the technological edge despite the fact that neanderthals also had them.

Although it may be plausible it does rest on a pretty key assumption: blade technology is in fact superior to the other techniques being utilised during this period. Over the years many potential benefits to blades have been proposed. They were stronger, easier to make, had a larger cutting surface and they were a more efficient use of the raw material, enabling you to get more blades from the same quantity of stone (to name but a few). So the important question is whether or not these benefits actually exist.

Figuring this would be a question worth answering some researchers performed a bit of experimental archaeology, creating and comparing “human” blades and similar “neanderthal” flakes in an effort to see whether the former was superior. Surprisingly the result was “not really.”  Although blades had a larger cutting surface it took more raw material to create them and so you could get more “neanderthal” flakes out of the  same rock, even if each individual tool had a smaller cutting surface. On top of that you could resharpen the flakes more times before they broke.

The outline of a blade and a neanderthal “flake” decreasing as they are resharpened. Note how the flake could be resharpened more times than the blade.

Arguably the most important finding is the fact that the two techniques aren’t that different. Although blades do have a larger cutting surface and despite the fact that you can get more flakes out of each rock, these differences aren’t that significant. Neither tool is clearly superior and are in actual fact quite comparable. So even though blades did have a few points in their favour this would probably not have given humans much of an edge over neanderthals. Actually, the most important finding is probably the fact that decreasing the mass of the tool provides the most benefits.

A projectile armed with bladelets. Imagine how much lighter it is than a solid stone point

As such bladelets (blades <5cm) would’ve been the best technology, having the largest (relative) cutting edge and taking less raw material to do so. On top of that, many suggest bladelets were also offered other key advantages. They could form composite weapons with multiple cutting edges (i.e. barbed spears). Tools made with bladelets would also use less stone, making them much lighter without sacrificing much dps. Whilst neanderthals did also make bladelets, like blades, they made fewer than humans. So it might’ve been Homo sapiens bladelets, not blades, which gave them a key advantage.

However this raises the interesting question of why humans were making so many blades if they offered no real advantage. There are a range of possibilities: perhaps it was a “neutral mutation” during human cultural evolution, maybe it was a side effect of the focus on bladelets where the true benefit lies, or it might just be that people were “tricked” into thinking that blades were superior because they had a larger cutting edge. Some have even suggested that it was a way of “showing off” skills, perhaps to woo the opposite sex.

Figuring out what large blades were so common can provide key insights into human cultural/social evolution and identifying whether bladelets are as advantageous as they appear to be could help reveal why neanderthals went extinct. As if that wasn’t enough this data is interesting in its own right, overturning a long-standing archaeological presumption and reminding us to never take a fact for granted. This research pushes humans and neanderthals a little bit closer together, at least technologically speaking.

Eren MI, Greenspan A, & Sampson CG (2008). Are Upper Paleolithic blade cores more productive than Middle Paleolithic discoidal cores? A replication experiment. Journal of human evolution, 55 (6), 952-61 PMID: 18835009

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4 thoughts on “Was human technology superior to neanderthals’?”

  1. Alan says:

    I would like to suggest/recommend a Social technology as the definitive factor in the success of Modern Humans over all varieties of archaic to include Cro-Magnon. This is explained in:
    ‘Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior’, by Christopher Boehm, and also discussed in less detail by J. Diamond in ‘The Third Chimpanzee’. This social technology of how to negotiate and maintain an egalitarian community allowed larger groups with better cooperation and support. It also allowed for elders to survive and mentor the band.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Certainly differences in social structure/size/technology are very interesting and may help explain why we are the only surviving member of the hominins. I’ve discussed it before:
      http://evoanth.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/neanderthals-had-differently-organised-brains/

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