Why write a blog about Neandertals and their thinking for Psychology Today? Neandertals aren’t around anymore, and we can’t run them through experimental protocols, so surely we can’t learn anything about how they thought. They’re gone, and we’re not, so let’s just focus on us (wrong!). We hope to show over the next several postings that we can, in fact, learn some very interesting things about Neandertals and ourselves by examining what things they left behind (which is what archaeologists study) and by examining their skeletal remains (which is the focus of some anthropologists). But we also hope that Neandertals are just a start and that we can use this blog to discuss a wide range of issues concerning the evolution of human cognition.
So who were Neandertals? We first need to emphasize that some people’s idea of what Neandertals were like is mistaken, based largely on faulty interpretations that were made over 100 years ago, but which informed two generations of cinema, novels, comic books, and political cartoons. This caveman caricature led many people, including some scholars (but none more recently), to consider Neandertals to have been simple, dumb brutes. The truth is far different. Second, let’s discuss their name and pronunciation. The first Neandertal skeleton was found in the Neander Valley in Germany. Neander was the name of a fellow who explored this rocky valley of caves and waterfalls, and interestingly, the translation of Neander means new man. Thal was the German name for valley, until the beginning of the 20th century when Germans changed the official spelling to tal. Regardless of whether you wish to spell it Neandertals or Neanderthals (both are correct), the “h” would not be pronounced.
Third, let’s examine their correct Linnaean name: it’s debatable. The term Homo sapiens (the first term is the genus, the second term is the species) is most common. If we adopt the subspecies term (some anthropologists do and some don’t), then we are Homo sapiens sapiens and Neandertals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Some anthropologists reject the notion of subspecies, so we would be Homo sapiens and they would be Homo neanderthalensis (note in this Linnaean written case, the “th” is mandatory). You also probably learned that to be in the same species, its members must be successful crossbreeding, and genetic evidence supports the idea that there was some successful but limited interbreeding, thus, officially making us both the same species, sapiens (which means knowing, or discerning, or wise).
So who were they? They were officially our cousins. Neandertals flourished in Europe and Western Asia between about 200,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago. The beginning date is arbitrary; Neandertals evolved gradually from an earlier hominin known as Homo heidelbergensis over several hundred thousand years. Homo heidelbergensis was our most recent but distant common ancestor with Neandertals, and Homo heidelbergensis lived about 800,000 years ago. Around 600,000 years ago to about 400,000 years ago, Neandertals and Homo sapiens began diverging into separate groups. The extinction date for Neandertals is not so arbitrary. They went extinct sometime beginning about 30,000 years ago, and most paleoanthropologists (the primary group of scholars interested in human evolution) believe that modern humans—played a role in that extinction.
There are also two other important facts to keep in mind when discussing Neandertals and modern humans: First, Neandertals and Homo sapiens evolved as separate populations for several hundred thousand years, and second, as a result there were differences between them, both in anatomy and behavior. It is DNA that confirms the evolutionary separation of Neandertals and Homo sapiens. It has been possible to obtain Neandertal DNA from samples of bone taken from Neandertal skeletons. This DNA tells us that, indeed, Neandertals and modern humans evolved separately for at least 400,000 years. ‘Separately’ means that the two groups were genetically isolated from one another, and they had their own evolutionary development. But the DNA also tells us that at a more recent date—perhaps 80,000 years ago—Neandertals and our ancestors came together and ‘exchanged genes.’ As a result about 1% to 4% of the genes of current Europeans and Asians have a Neandertal origin. Exactly how those genes were exchanged is unknown, but there are many interesting hypotheses. However, to describe this gene mixture as “Neandertals are us” is highly misleading (as some journalists have described it). Many modern humans, particularly people whose origins are in Africa, have no Neandertal DNA. Further, what that 1% to 4% of Neandertal DNA in some of us actually does (codes for) is still far from known.
A second and final fact about Neandertals is that despite going extinct, they had bigger brains than us (about 10% bigger)! And this will be the topic of our next posting.
Want to learn a lot more about Neandertals right away? Get our recently published book How to Think Like a Neandertal (by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge) published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. It is now available in paperback (or hard cover) at Amazon.com and Ebay.com.