How Our Thinking about “Neanderthal Thinking” Has Been All Wrong
When President Biden used the term “Neanderthal Thinking” to criticize Texas and Mississippi governors for lifting Covid-19 restrictions too soon, he unleashed a barrage of criticism. It not only came from Republicans and others who want their normal life back again, but from individuals rallying to the defense of Neanderthals, because the traditional thinking about them has been all wrong. Moreover, by understanding Neanderthals, who lived successfully for over 250,000 years all over England, Eurasia, and the Middle East, before they went extinct, we can learn from their demise how to take more seriously some of the dangers we face today from environmental changes and from the spread of warfare all over the world.
Another reason for us to better understand Neanderthals is the realization that most of us share 1–4% Neanderthal DNA. Moreover, the recent research about DNA, cloning, CRISPR techniques, and the de-extinction of some extinct animals has led some researchers to wonder about the possibility of bringing back Neanderthals. The technology is there, though the decision to bring them back raises ethical issues. But if it can be done, there is always the possibility that some scientist may seek do this, much like a Chinese scientist used gene editing techniques on twins who were born in China.
Ironically, President Biden’s comment, based on traditional views about Neanderthals as dumb, primitive pre-human cave-dwelling brutes, inferior to modern humans, has led to a resurgence of interest in learning who the Neanderthals really were. The result has been a realization that they were much more similar to us than earlier researchers and the general public have wanted to believe. In fact, the most recent research on Neanderthals in the last few years, reflected in the publication of some articles in 2020 and 2021, demolishes this old way of thinking and replaces it with a new understanding of who the Neanderthal’s really were and why they were so successful so long. This recent research also gives the lie to the claim that we eliminated them because we were smarter and more innovative. Instead, there were many other reasons for their extinction, including changes in the climate and the continuing war between Neanderthals with each other and Homo sapiens, which might serve as a red flag to those who would ignore the dangers of our changing climate and warfare around the world today.
Thus, I would like to present an overview of the latest research on who the Neanderthal’s really were and discuss the possibility of bring them back. In fact, a look back into prehistory might help us understand why we are facing growing warfare all over the world — a pattern that has existed throughout history, and in prehistory, too. Aside from having an interest in this subject, further kindled by President Biden’s “Neanderthal Thinking” remark, I am the author of several books on Neanderthals, most recently The Return of the Neanderthals, a sci-fi novel about what might happen if they were brought back by DNA cloning, grow up as children, and become adults in modern society.
The major thrust of this new research is that the Neanderthals are more like us than we would like to admit, and increasingly, the differences once believed to exist between them and us are less. That’s why as the larger differences disappeared, researchers looked for increasingly minimal differences to separate us. But more accurately, Neanderthals are more similar than us in many ways. For example, in an extensive review of the research literature, Susan Peeters and Hub Swartz from the Netherlands made this claim in an article: “Neanderthals As Familiar Strangers and the Human Spark,” published July 21, 2020 Springer’s History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. As they point out, Neanderthal research has reopened the question of human uniqueness, and, increasingly “Neanderthals are regarded as basically human.” Thus, it is no longer correct to identify the human mark or spark which defines us as favored winners.
Rather, recent Neanderthal research based on the latest research technologies has been presenting a different picture of them, as described in an extensive review by D. Pagagianni and D. Morse in The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story, published by Thames and Hudson in 2015 — a development confirmed by even later research. As Peeters and Zwart point out:
“A mounting body of evidence continues to expand the known repertoire of sophisticated strategies and symbolism practiced by Neanderthals…The more data we gather on their behavior, the more similar Neanderthals seem to be to the modern human pattern. Not only dental hygiene, also large-scale cooperative hunting, complex stone tools, language, planning, care for the ill, imagination, and symbolic behavior, was present.”
In fact, recent research has discovered marine shells with perforations and colors and eagle talons for ornamentation, showing Neanderthals had art too. Supposedly, they decorated themselves with these colors, and they wore jewelry made from shells and feathers, according to a posting in the Human Journey on “Discovering Our Distant Ancestors: Neanderthal Man…: Built for the Cold.”
One result of this recent research is that Neanderthals have become one of the “hottest debates in paleonanthropology,” with most the controversies centered around the ideas of identity and equality. Concerns about identity and equality have taken center stage due to the findings that the Neanderthals are much more like us than we have believed for over 150 years after the first Neanderthal bones were discovered in Germany in 1856. Thus, Biden’s notions about the backwardness of Neanderthal thinking, shared wrongly by millions of people today, are wrong.
Instead, as recent evidence from genetic and archaeological data now shows, the Neanderthals and modern humans were similar in their biology and cultural capacity. Thus, the predominant scientific opinion is now that “Neanderthals were people like us, ‘our equal in humanity.’”
This evidence has come from a number of sources. One key source comes from scientists who now have improved methods for extracting ancient DNA from fossils and paleontological sites. Additionally, there have been advances in genome sequencing, so now researchers have been able to reconstruct a complete nuclear genome from the bones of Neanderthals as well as other extinct species of humans, such as the Denisovans. In fact, a team of researchers, led by geneticist Alysson Muotri, are trying to actually recreate Neanderthal minds by using the CRISPR genome-editing technique.
Another significant finding is the discovery that Neanderthals share the FOXP2 language gene with modern humans. And research on Neanderthal bone structure has shown that they had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech, as reported by an international team of researchers, led by Mercedes Conde-Valverde, in an article: “Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens Had Similar Auditory and Speech Capacities” published in Nature Ecology & Evolution in March 21. In conducting the study, the researchers used high resolution CT scans to create virtual 3D models of the ear structures in Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and they found that the Neanderthals had similar hearing abilities. This was possible because they had a wide bandwidth that allowed them to easily distinguish different acoustic signals for oral communication. As a result, the researchers concluded that Neanderthals “possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech.” Thus, the Neanderthals had a similar capacity to “produce the sounds of human speech, and their ear was ‘tuned’ to perceive these frequencies,” which suggested that increasingly complex behaviors and vocal communication coevolved during the course of human evolution.
Still other research from the bones has shown that Neanderthals apparently shared the same kind of human empathy and symbolic thinking. For instance, they seemed to care for their weak and sick, since the bones have shown that some individuals lived to an old age, even though they suffered from serious ailments that made it necessary for them to be supported by others to survive, as pointed out in another recent research review by Michael Breyl “Triangulating Neanderthal Cognition: A Tale of Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees,” in Wire’s Cognitive Science September 15, 2020 publication. Breyl notes that the Neanderthals also had hearth-like structures which enabled them to do regular cooking. Then, too, researchers have found evidence of seafaring in that the Neanderthals were able to cross open waters, and they had some trade, based on establishing local workshops and transporting some materials long-distance.
The research on DNA also shows that the Neanderthals contributed genetically to modern humans through interbreeding. Significantly, this wasn’t a one-time occurrence but occurred again and again, as Neanderthals met up with the Homo sapiens who were expanding out of Africa to the lands throughout Eurasia, the Middle East, and Asia, once the sole province of Neanderthals for over 200,000 years. In fact, some recent research has found Neanderthal genes in people from Africa, though they have only about a third of what’s found in the genomes of people with European and Asian ancestry. Why? The theory is that people from Europe and Asia carried these genes with them to Africa after their ancestors interbred with the Neanderthals, as described in a Science.com article in the Biggest Science News of 2020: “Neanderthal DNA Surprises in Modern Humans.”
Still another research finding is that the Neanderthals weren’t always living in peace in their small family groups of about 10–15 members. Instead, they were “skilled fighters and dangerous warriors,” as described by Nicholas R. Longrich in a November 2, 2020 article in TheConversation.com, “War in the Time of Neanderthals: How Our Species Battles for Supremacy for Over 100,000 Years.” Among other things, the Neanderthals were cooperative big-game hunters who carefully organized their kills. The researchers also found the evidence of warfare in the Neanderthals’ bones, most notably in the fractures in their lower arm due to warding off blows, and they found many examples of trauma and deaths in young Neanderthal males. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that while some injuries could be due to hunting, the types of injuries were more likely for a people “engaged in intertribal warfare — small-scale but intense, prolonged conflict, (with) wars dominated by guerrilla-style raids and ambushes, with rarer battles.” It’s a description that could well apply to the warfare going on in many countries the Middle East, Africa, and Asia today.
In any case, the Neanderthals were successful for a long time in warding off modern humans, since they resisted modern human expansion for around 100,000 years — a sign of their success in war, since they weren’t immediately overrun when they met modern humans. A key reason they weren’t, according to researchers, is that they had a number of tactical and strategic advantages, such as their intimate knowledge of the terrain, the seasons, and how to live off the native plants and animals. The Neanderthals also had the advantage of massive, muscular builds, making them good fighters in close hand-to-hand fighting. Then, too, they had very large eyes, giving them superior vision in low-lighting, so they could maneuver around in the darkness when engaging in ambushes or early morning raids.
So why did they become extinct? One possibility is they were comfortable in their way of life, so they didn’t have to make any cultural or technological innovations. That might have put them at a disadvantage when modern humans arrived in greater numbers and had better weapons to fight with, as Michael Breyl suggests. Then, too, they may have been negatively affected by ecological and demographic conditions, such as the cold waves that hit Eurasia from time to time and thinned out the Neanderthal population. As Breyl puts it, the continued decline of the Neanderthals could be due to “a fundamental demographic imbalance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans,” which was “further worsened by reoccurring demographic weaknesses within the Neanderthal population.” In support of this theory, Breyl notes there was evidence that the demographic push of modern humans matches up with the climate cycle.”
Another possibility is there could have been slight differences in fertility, reproductive or mortality rates, and disease susceptibility at the same time that there was some genetic intermixing with Homo sapiens. Meanwhile, Homo sapiens might have developed some adaptations that helped them expand their population and improve their fighting skills. For example, the Human Journey article, “Neanderthal Man…Built for the Cold” points out that Homo sapiens began stitching their clothing to retain more warmth while preserving freedom of movement; they created weapons like the throwing spear so they could hunt prey from a distance; made fishing nets and snares to trap small mammals; and were able to develop more complex social organization to support a larger population. As Nicholas R. Longrich points out “Finally the stalemate (between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens) broke, and the tide shifted. But we don’t know why. It’s possible the invention of superior ranged weapons — bows, spear-throwers, throwing clubs — let lightly-built Homo sapiens harass the stock Neanderthals from a distance using hit and run tactics. Or perhaps better hunting and gathering techniques let Homo sapiens feed bigger tribes, creating numerical superiority in battle.”
In other words, researchers increasingly believe that the Neanderthals did not have any lesser cognitive abilities that contributed to their extinction. Rather it seems more like the Homo sapiens just had better success in battle, while taking on some of the Neanderthal genes through interbreeding as they wiped them out, a little like what happens today in the wars between many groups of people throughout the world. Many of these battles between opposing groups, often between rebels and the government, have been going on for years, and then through various factors — success in a battle, superior weapons, stronger alliances, more endurance in the face of a plague, or some lucky event — one group prevails.
Thus, it seems like there is much we can learn from Neanderthals, and now that we have the technology to bring them back, perhaps we could do so to learn even more, especially about how they think. Then, too, perhaps the Neanderthals have useful skills to contribute to modern society, such as their great strength or superior vision. And perhaps we can learn from their strong social bonding in enduring families at a time when we are experiencing many family dysfunctions.
If we do bring them back, it is important that we honor their humanity by treating them well, like fellow humans, not dumb inferior subhuman brutes, as was once the popular image of them. To this end, we might provide social workers, teachers, and other caregivers to nurture and teach them, like we might for any children growing up in society. In this way, as we learn from them, we can accept them as part of the diversity of human culture, just like we are seeking to have a more inclusive society today.
GINI GRAHAM SCOTT, Ph.D., J.D., is a nationally known writer, consultant, speaker, and seminar leader, specializing in business and work relationships, professional and personal development, social trends, popular culture, and writing, publishing, and producing films. She has published over 200 books, 50 books with major publishers. She has worked with dozens of clients on memoirs, self-help, popular business books, and film scripts. She is also the writer and executive producer of 12 films in distribution, release, or production. She has created several dozen sizzle reels for her own books, films, and services and for clients, which may be viewed at www.mypromeo.com. Her website for book publishing and writing is at www.changemakerspublishingandwriting.com. The website featuring her films, documentaries and film/TV series is at www.changemakersproductionsfilms.com.