Comment on Villa & Roebroeks (2014) ‘An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex’.

A paper by Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks ( 1) in the open access journal PLOS ONE has reviewed archaeological evidence for the view that the ‘inferiority’ of Neanderthals to modern humans was responsible for their demise.  See this post for a quick summary.

Villa and Roebroeks are critical of view that comparisons between the archaeological records of the African Middle Stone Age and European Middle Palaeolithic can be used to demonstrate that Neanderthals were ‘inferior’ to modern humans in terms of a wide range of cognitive and technological abilities, and have made a very good case.

However, they seem to be dismissive of the impact of what they describe as ‘subtle biological differences’ between Neanderthals and modern humans, which they state ‘tend to be overinterpreted’. They cite Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar (2013) as an example.

Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar used eye socket size as a proxy for the size of the eye itself and showed that Neanderthals had larger eyes than modern humans. This is not an unexpected result; living at high latitudes, Neanderthals experienced lower light levels than people living in the tropics, and larger eyes might have been an evolutionary response. The consequence is that in comparison to a modern human brain, a greater proportion of the Neanderthal brain might have needed to be dedicated to the visual cortex, with the trade-off that less was available for other cognitive functions. Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar suggested that Neanderthals were less able than modern humans to maintain the complex social networks required to manage long-distance trade networks effectively, and learn about the existence of distant foraging areas unaffected by local shortages. Furthermore, their ability to develop and pass on innovations might have been limited in comparison to modern humans ( 2).

On a less subtle level, it is only to be expected that the neural organisation of the Neanderthal brain would have differed from that of modern humans. The globular brain case of Homo sapiens differs from the long, low braincase that characterised archaic human species, including Neanderthals, and the change reflects a change in the actual proportions of the brain. In comparison to archaic humans, the parietal lobes of modern humans are expanded, and these are associated with the processing of speech-re,lated sounds ( 3, 4). It is possible that their development played a role in the development of syntactic language in Homo sapiens and that Neanderthals used different and partially non-verbal forms of communication ( 5).

While Villa and Roebroeks have demonstrated the risks of over-reliance on archaeological evidence, the biological differences between Neanderthals and modern humans are real. These differences must be included within a holistic approach to understanding the cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals, who as we now know are far from extinct in that they live on in the genome of modern populations.

References:

  1. Villa, P. & Roebroeks, W., Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex. PLoS One 9 (4), e96424 (2014).
  2. Pearce, E., Stringer, C. & Dunbar, R., New insights into differences in brain organization between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280 (1758) (2013).
  3. Wynn, T. & Coolidge, F., in Rethinking the human revolution, edited by Mellars, P., Boyle, K., Bar-Yosef, O. & Stringer, C. (McDonald Institute, Cambridge, 2007), pp. 79-90.
  4. Coolidge, F. & Wynn, T., The Rise of Homo sapiens (Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ, 2009).
  5. Mithen, S., The Singing Neanderthal (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2005).
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