The idea of a world inhabited by several human species feels more like science fiction than science fact because there is only one human species—Homo sapiens—alive. Yet for the bulk of our evolutionary history, multiple human species did coexist, with the current single-species situation being very much the exception and not the rule. The best-known example of the coexistence of two human species is that of the Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) with the Cro-Magnons (Homo sapiens) in Europe around 40,000 years ago. The interaction between these two species is one of the central themes of my book, Cro-Magnon: The Story of the Last Ice Age People of Europe.
After the original Neandertal skeleton was unearthed in Germany in 1856, prehistorians began to speculate about how Neandertals might have interacted with members of our species. Given the thousands of years and thousands of square miles over which contact between Neandertals and Cro-Magnons took place, such interactions almost certainly ranged from aggression and outright violence to grudging tolerance and friendly hospitableness. We know now from ancient DNA that such interspecies relations occasionally involved mating and that most people today can count a Neandertal among their distant ancestors.
We know now from ancient DNA that such interspecies relations occasionally involved mating and that most people today can count a Neandertal among their distant ancestors.
But were there cognitive differences between these two species? Some paleoanthropologists believe our species was more intellectually gifted than the Neandertals and that, as a result, we drove them to extinction. This idea does have a certain appeal—after all, we’re still here and the Neandertals are not—but I dispute this notion. First, Neandertal brains were, in absolute size, on average bigger than our own; they weren’t feeding oxygen and glucose to that notoriously greedy organ without reason. Even in terms of brain size relative to body size (encephalization), Neandertal brains fall well within the modern human range of variation. For example, if you are blessed with the average human brain size and weigh 148 pounds or more, guess what? You’re less encephalized than the average Neandertal.
The idea of our cognitive advantage over Neandertals has long been rooted in the Paleolithic archaeology of Europe. For years, Neandertals were only found associated with relatively simple Middle Paleolithic tools and were thought to lack the capacity for creating art. Neandertals also made few implements from bone or antler, and their stone tools tended to be made on bulky flakes. In contrast, the Cro-Magnons are known to have more sophisticated Upper Paleolithic artifacts. Their toolkit included a wide variety of bone and antler implements, and their stone tools were almost always made on sharp, thin, parallel-sided blades (lithic artifacts at least twice as long as they are wide). Unlike the Neandertals, the Cro-Magnons were known to create art and do so in a variety of forms, including mobiliary (i.e., portable) and parietal (i.e., wall) art, as well as beads and other forms of personal ornamentation that were notably absent from Middle Paleolithic Neandertal sites. The rapid transition around 45,000 years ago from the Middle to Upper Paleolithic in Europe was thus viewed as both a biological and cultural phenomenon, with its sudden appearance explained as the result of a new, smarter species of hominin (Homo sapiens) bringing it into Europe.
A more significant problem with the “inferior Neandertals” idea, however, is that we now have ample evidence for Neandertal art in the Middle Paleolithic.
At best, this is an oversimplification. At least some of the earliest Upper Paleolithic tools in Europe appear to have been made by Neandertals. Some dispute these artifacts’ attribution to Neandertals; others see Neandertal versions of Upper Paleolithic tools as cheap imitations of the ones their Cro-Magnon neighbors were making. Both arguments ring hollow to me for reasons detailed in Cro-Magnon.
A more significant problem with the “inferior Neandertals” idea, however, is that we now have ample evidence for Neandertal art in the Middle Paleolithic. This includes 64,000-year-old geometric designs, stenciled hands, and a red-painted speleothem at three cave sites in Spain (La Pasiega, Maltrabieso, and Doña Trinidad). Perforated mollusk shells stained with colorants were found in Middle Paleolithic levels at two sites in Spain (Cueva de los Aviones and Cueva Antón). These date to at least 50,000 years ago, with one from Aviones possibly 115,000 years old! In 2021, a 51,000-year-old “Irish elk” (Megaloceros giganteus) phalanx incised with five stacked offset chevrons was found in Middle Paleolithic levels at Einhornhöhle, Germany.
We are now aware that Middle Paleolithic Neandertals also used personal ornamentation. For example, we’ve found human-made grooves on white-tailed eagle talons from the 130,000-year-old Neandertal site of Krapina, Croatia, that were apparently used to fix the talons to a strand. There are remnants of animal-based fibers and natural colorants recovered from one of these grooves, suggesting the talons were part of a leather or sinew necklace or bracelet. Similarly, there are raptor claws with cut marks on them that were found in Middle Paleolithic levels at Combe Grenal in France. In Middle Paleolithic Neandertal contexts in France and Italy, wing bones of multiple bird species show telltale signs of cutting and scraping to facilitate flight feather removal, consistent with their use as adornment.
If both Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis made art, then it’s logical to assume that the last common ancestor of these two species, who lived sometime around 750,000 to 350,000 years ago, was also capable of creating art.
If both Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis made art, then it’s logical to assume that the last common ancestor of these two species, who lived sometime around 750,000 to 350,000 years ago, was also capable of creating art. Nonetheless, while Neandertals made art, examples are far rarer than those of their Cro-Magnon neighbors. What do we make of this? I argue this trend is due to differences in population densities. In his 2014 book Thin on the Ground, Steven Churchill argues that Neandertals faced greater exploitation competition from other members of the carnivore guild than did their contemporaries in Africa (the ancestors of the Cro-Magnons) because there is much less plant food available in their high latitude environments throughout the year. Neandertal populations were thus constrained by competition from large carnivores and, as a result, lived at depressed population densities. In Africa, human population sizes were less constrained by competition from other carnivores because a much higher proportion of their diets could come from available plants.
Why is this relevant? One foundational idea about the function of art, especially its expression as personal adornment, is that it becomes more frequent when people begin to encounter other people they do not know—that art functions as a form of “in-group” signaling to unknown persons. This phenomenon only happens, however, when people live at sufficiently high population densities. Homo sapiens, which evolved in Africa, were accordingly living in larger groups than their cousins Homo neanderthalensis in Europe. As Homo sapiens expanded their range into Europe, they maintained these denser populations, giving them a demographic edge over the sparsely distributed indigenous Neandertals. This was additionally exacerbated by the fact that Neandertals faced resource competition from the Cro-Magnons at the worst possible time: a bitterly cold period of the last ice age known as the Heinrich H5 event (which occurred about 45,000 to 40,000 years ago). The arrival of the Cro-Magnons in Europe appears to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In the end, the Cro-Magnons did have an advantage over the Neandertals, but it was a demographic advantage—not a cognitive one.