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Neanderthals may have had larger brains but environmental changes favoured homo sapiens

New research by the Max Planck Institute suggests it was ecological changes that ended the Neanderthals

Neanderthals have generally had a bad press since they were discovered more than a century ago.

Pictured as little more than apes, our closest human cousin has always been pictured as a stupid brute – almost twice our size and several times our strength – who failed to adapt to circumstances as cleverly as homo sapiens did.

One widely-taught example was that Neanderthals could not think ahead and, therefore, did not understand or perceive seasons and annual movements of animals, so did not plan for them. 

Instead, they randomly followed and hunted animals as and when they could, which was probably all of the time. Not being able to see the end coming, it is thought, Neanderthals are thought to have died out 50,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens, meanwhile, did understand seasons and movements of animals. So, not only could they plan to catch larger herds of animals more easily, they eventually invented farming, which depends on the understanding of the coming and going of seasons.

This broad view of prehistoric humankind probably said more about the attitude of society at the time of the Neanderthal discovery, made in 1848. But since then, a lot more facts about the subject have been established which suggest that early judgments were far from accurate.

Initially, it was thought that Neanderthals had absolutely zero genetic relationship to homo sapiens, but recent tests show that modern humans share anywhere between 1-4 percent of our DNA with Neanderthals.

Also, it’s been established that Neanderthal brains were generally larger than human brains. And yet, even today, every time you read a headline about this, it always includes the words “… but we are smarter than them”, or something to that effect.

At the same time, most people are aware and perhaps proud of the fact that that the brains of homo sapien – or modern humans – are larger than all the other apes and ape-men of the present and past.

Why is it that bigger brains means we are smarter than every other animal except Neanderthals, at which point a smaller brain becomes an advantage which makes us smarter?

It is said that the part of the brain that is involved in planning is larger in us than it was in Neanderthals.

However, there is no conclusive proof that one part of the brain works in isolation from the others. Furthermore, planning often involves knowing and understanding the past.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that, overall, Neanderthals’ brains were larger than that of homo sapiens, the evolutionary group to which all modern humans belong.

Neanderthals’ eyes were also larger, and so were their ears. This would suggest they could see further and more clearly, and had more sensitive auditory perception.

Some of these deductions may be controversial, but taken together, an even more controversial idea is emerging, and it’s possibly too sickening to contemplate for some people who have this religious idea that homo sapien is, essentially, a deity, or at least created by one.

According to the latest research, published by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, one big reason why the Neanderthals died out and homo sapiens survived is that homo sapiens were able to adapt to extreme climate changes whereas Neanderthals were not.

The Institute describes homo sapiens as a “global general specialist” who could survive in a wide variety of ecological circumstances over many millennia.

A co-author of the research, Dr Brian Stewart, does, however, accept that ecological adaptability may not be the only reason for homo sapiens’ longevity.

Dr Stewart says: “As with other definitions of human origins, problems of preservation also make it difficult to pinpoint the origins of humans as an ecological pioneer.

“However, an ecological perspective on the origins and nature of our species potentially illuminates the unique path of Homo sapiens as it rapidly came to dominate the Earth’s diverse continents and environments.”

max planck neanderthal homo sapiens
Map of the potential distribution of archaic hominins, including H. erectus, H. floresiensis, H. neanderthalenesis, Denisovans and archaic African hominins, in the Old World at the time of the evolution and dispersal of H. sapiens between approximately 300 and 60 thousand years ago. Credit: Roberts and Stewart.

The Institute does not appear to suggest any lack of intelligence on the part of the Neanderthals, instead highlighting their tendency to specialize.

Neanderthals were specialized to the occupation of high latitude Eurasia between 250,000 and 40,000 years ago, say the authors of the study, adding: “Neanderthals primarily exploited a diversity of forest and grassland habitats, and hunted a diversity of animals, from temperature northern Eurasia to the Mediterranean.”

While this Max Planck study does not get into the intelligence of Neanderthals, other studies have found that they were the first to develop what could be described as industrial processes.

Did the Neanderthals build the pyramids?

It is probably too wild an idea to think that Neanderthals may have built the pyramids to enrich Earth’s atmosphere, which may have been depleted by meteor strikes and other cataclysms. It didn’t save them anyway because their larger bodies and brains needed more oxygen and food than was available at the time. But, before they died off, they did manage to create homo sapiens – who could survive on less oxygen and food – to keep their legacy going.

Or someone did.

In other words, an increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that modern humans were genetically engineered into existence. Sounds crazy.

But even more crazy ideas than that are doing the rounds in what could be described as the “alternative” community of archaeologists, historians and researchers.

One idea is that a race of giant humans existed millions of years ago, probably lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, and they are the ones who built the pyramids and other massive monolithic and megalithic structures around the world.

Not only that, they also genetically engineered modern humans into existence through cross-breeding and other, more scientific methods.

No evidence of their labs or anything has been found, but some people claim some of their skeletons have been found.

Some of these giants were said to be several meters tall, which would mean they had much larger brains, if the same proportion of brain-to-body size as homo sapiens holds.

Mainstream science has not accepted or even discussed the veracity of these findings – which include the discovery of normal size humans with super-large skulls which may have housed brains twice the size of modern human brains.

A very limited amount of genetic testing has been done and made public on any of these findings, and DNA tests which show that these strange human-like beings were related to humans have been dismissed and criticised by established scientific establishments and organizations.

One idea we haven’t got time to go into in this article but worth mentioning is aliens. Yes, some people believe it was aliens who came to Earth and built the pyramids and all the other giant buildings of old and created humans and then left, never to be seen again.

Some of it fits in with religious views and certainly these stories exist in a variety of forms in cultures around the world.

But without solid evidence that is peer-reviewed and accepted by the mainstream scientific establishment – much as alternative researchers may dislike it – the vast majority of people will probably continue to believe that civilization began around 6,000 years ago or that the Earth is literally 2,000 years old.

(Main picture credit: Smithsonian Magazine.)

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