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Is our species more intelligent than the Neanderthals?

Is our species more intelligent than the Neanderthals?

April 26, 2024

The word "Neanderthal" is often used as an insult or in a pejorative sense, indicating that the person to whom it refers is coarse, crude, impulsive and unintelligent. And is that most people consider that the Neanderthal, one of the different human species that have populated the earth and that died out during prehistory, had a very limited cognitive capacity, a kind of savage that could not compete with the Homo sapiens, species to which we belong.

But is this really so? Is Homo sapiens more intelligent than the Neandertals? In this article we are going to make a brief reflection about this topic.

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Who were the Neanderthals?

The Neanderthals are an extinct species of the genus Homo (that is, one of the species of humans) that they lived mainly in Europe and Asia approximately between 230,000 and 28,000 years ago . It is the last species of the homo genus to become extinct, leaving the Homo sapiens as the sole survivor of this part of the tree of biological evolution. This species shared with the Homo sapiens the Indo-European territories for thousands of years, until for reasons that are still unknown today they ended up disappearing.


The Neanderthal was physically very adapted to life in cold and mountainous environments such as those of Ice Age Europe. He was shorter and much stronger and more muscular than sapiens, and his pharynx was shorter and his nose was wider. It also had a larger skull, in which the double ciliary arch (a kind of bony covering that covers the eyebrows) and the prognathism stand out, as well as a higher cranial capacity .

Popular culture has often placed this species below modern homo sapiens, associating it with an image of savagery and considering its lower members or less adapted by the fact that they ended up becoming extinct. But this does not imply that they were, or lacked intelligence.


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Evidence of the intelligence of the Neanderthals

The truth is the Neanderthals were not brutes without intelligence . This human species, which in fact was close to being called Homo stupidus (Ernst Haeckel came to propose such a name for this species after its discovery), actually had a fairly high level of cognitive ability. And there is a great amount of evidence that merits consideration of these beings as very intelligent creatures.

They have been observed in different sites where there is evidence that the Neanderthals they buried their dead , which implies the ability to perceive themselves as differentiated entities, and the presence of abstract thinking. They also dominated the fire and made complex tools, although different from what our ancestors would end up using, and they have found remains of dyes that could have been used to dye clothes.


Although until recently it was believed that they had not left artistic representations, the antiquity of some cave paintings (previous to the arrival of the Homo sapiens) seem to indicate that they also made artistic products of this type, which would indicate the capacity for abstraction and symbolization .

They had a social structure, and there is evidence that they looked after the elderly and the sick. Its anatomical structure and brain capacity make it considered that they possessed the ability to use oral language. It has also been observed in different archaeological sites that the Neanderthals They used different strategies to hunt, often using terrain features to do so . This implies capacity for planning, abstraction and judgment, since it requires knowledge of the environment and the advantages and disadvantages of certain geographical features, such as wells and ravines.

More or less intelligent than the Homo sapiens?

The fact that Neanderthals possess intelligence is not enough proof that our cognitive capacity can not be greater. However, the opposite also has no demonstrable empirical evidence. The behavior of one or another species was similar, and only the disappearance of the Neanderthals is used as proof of their lower mental ability.

In fact, the cranial capacity of these humans (remember that just as we are part of the homo genus) is higher than that of Homo sapiens, being also the brain of greater size . While this does not necessarily indicate superior intelligence (since the fact that a brain is larger does not necessarily mean it is more efficient), it does indicate that brain capacity could allow the development of cognitive abilities.Your nervous system, however, could function differently than ours, which would lead to different ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Possible reasons for its extinction

Many people consider that if the Neandertals were extinguished and we are still here, it was, at least in part, because the cognitive capacity of the Homo sapiens it allowed him to face problems and disadvantages that the Neanderthal, in principle more primitive, could not face. But the truth is that the fact of having survived so far does not have to have been a result of greater intelligence. There are many reasons that led to the disappearance of the Neanderthal, some of them empirically contrasted.

One of the possible reasons is found in a phenomenon that has been repeated countless times throughout history, between members of the same species that have lived in different ecosystems: the transmission of diseases for which the other party's members are not prepared . An example of this is found in the conquest of America by Europeans; they unintentionally brought diseases to the American continent for which the natives did not have any kind of resistance or immunity, causing a great number of deaths (quickly spreading in large cities and settlements and depleting the native population). Something similar could have happened among the Neanderthals before the arrival of the Homo sapiens.

Another reason and probably one of the main ones is inbreeding, something corroborated by science. The Neanderthals, in the then cold Europe, they tended to establish small social groups in which related people lived together to some degree, reproducing with these so that there was a high level of inbreeding. In the long run, this practice gradually weakened the species as mutations and harmful genetic alterations were added and new genetic material was not incorporated, to the point that over time the birth of new healthy and fertile Neanderthals became difficult.

The Cromagnon man, on the other hand, traveled great distances and had to move often to hunt, a mobility that facilitated not giving a level of inbreeding so high to find other settlements and link with similar with which there would be no consanguinity.

It must also be taken into account that the Neandertals they were adapted to Europe and tended to look for caves to shelter from the cold , caves often sought after and inhabited by predators that they must face.

Finally, although we mostly imagine the extinction of the Neandertals as a process in which they all ended up dying, there is a theory that their extinction could have to do with hybridization . The Homo sapiens it became very numerous in comparison with the amount of Neandertals, being able to be lost the species when going away diluting its genes in the crossings between neandertales and sapiens. This is consistent with the fact that the current human being has been found to possess genes belonging to the Neandertals.

Neanderthal genes in modern humans

Another aspect that may be relevant to comment is the fact that in the genes of the current homo sapiens sapiens have been found vestiges and remnants of DNA from the Homo neanderthalensis . This implies that Neandertals and Homo sapiens they came to produce fertile offspring, and we actually share part of our inheritance with this other species. In fact, some recent researchers consider that the current human being owns around two percent of Neanderthal genetic material, being the percentage much higher than what the first studies seemed to indicate.

Some of the genes that have been found similar to those of this species have to do with the color of skin and hair (possibly clearer in Neanderthals), the tolerance to solar radiation (higher in Neanderthals, who lived in Europe before the homo sapiens emigrated from Africa), mood and circadian rhythms. Many of them are also related to the immune system , thanks to which we can defend ourselves from infections and diseases. Although on the other hand, some of these genes have also been linked to schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders, autoimmune problems, cholesterol and fat accumulation.


Neanderthals: Smarter Than You Think (April 2024).


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