Neanderthals less 'creative' than humans
November 8th, 2010
12:01 PM ET

Neanderthals less 'creative' than humans

We recently learned Ozzy Osbourne apparently has some genetic traces of Neanderthal in him, and now scientists are finding out even more about this extinct human relative.

The modern human brain and the Neanderthal brain began at about the same size at birth, but their skulls show that they began developing very differently within the first year of life, scientists say.

Neanderthals evolved more than 400,000 years ago, lived as hunter-gatherers in Europe and Asia, and went extinct about 30,000 years ago.

Judging by the archaeological record, Neanderthals were well-adapted to their particular environment, but they were not as creative in terms of hunting strategies or artwork – for example, they apparently did not make cave paintings the way their human contemporaries did.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology scanned Neanderthals skulls and compared them with modern human skulls. Their results are published in the journal Current Biology.

Subtle changes in the early phases of brain development can have a huge impact on social cognition, communication, and how creative members of a species are, said study author Philipp Gunz of the  Planck Institute.

The pattern of brain development described in the study may point to a diminished inclination to communicate through art, and possibly also help explain why modern humans had advantages over Neanderthals, he said.

"If you are an artist you have to understand symbols, you have to understand meaning, you have to look at the world in the certain way, and it seems that Neanderthals, for 200,000 years, didn’t feel like it," Gunz said.

Modern humans had a higher reproduction rate, and were more flexible in terms of their hunting strategies, he said.

But before we feel too good about ourselves, remember that Neanderthals actually roamed the Earth longer than our own species, Homo sapiens.

"It's not like we can look down on them. We haven't made it that far yet," Gunz said. "Their extinction, I would say, is not a direct consequence of this particular brain development pattern." But the cognitive differences may explain biologically why modern humans showed this creativity and flexibility in their behavior, he said.

Neanderthals had difficult living conditions, inhabiting Europe during the most recent Ice Age. In fact, for most of their time as a species, Neanderthals were on the border of extinction, Gunz said. They ate meat and hunted, and were probably social people who could communicate.

Back when humans and Neanderthals both lived in Europe, population density was low; there were only about 100,000 people on the continent, Gunz said. The first interactions between Neanderthals and humans could have occurred when both species were in the Middle East about 90,000 years ago or less, he said.

It's not certain if there was conflict or harmony between the two species, but there was most likely some interaction and interbreeding. A paper in May in the journal Science estimated that 1 to 4 percent of the modern human genome of non-Africans can be traced back to the Neanderthal

As scientists continue to study the Neanderthal genome, they will learn even more about this creature that seems to have something in common with many of us, not just Ozzy.

Photo: a representation of Neanderthals at the Museum for Prehistory in Eyzies-de-Tayac, France.

soundoff (1,065 Responses)
  1. A. Nony

    To BRAD: "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond addresses the quesitons you ask.

    November 8, 2010 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Evolution is scientifically inaccurate

    We did not evolve. Link with irrefutable logic: http://www.newgeology.us/presentation32.html

    November 8, 2010 at 18:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Padre Nostre

      Thank you. I always knew earth is flat and the sun goes round earth. Science is stupid. A worldwide conspiracy.

      July 27, 2011 at 04:58 | Report abuse |
  3. lance corporal

    this article is wrong I happen to know for a fact that most neanderthals where exc at origami

    November 8, 2010 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Carz

    Predictably, when the topic of neanderthals comes up some people post comments calling their political opponents neanderthals. That's not very creative, now, is it :\

    November 8, 2010 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply

    i wonder if Neanderthals were blonds?

    November 8, 2010 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kenny of salt

      There is some evidence that the gene for red hair has its roots in the Neanderthal genome. Get it? Roots?

      July 26, 2011 at 13:20 | Report abuse |
  6. tony

    I have a very pronounced sloping back forehead, but many US patents as inventor of several different major PC and networking leap-forward technologies. But like many other secret descendant Neanderthals, I hate US TV. I think we were smarter than you guys in that we point blank refused to invent it. Plus not watching it gives us more time to spend interbreeding with your womenfolk.

    November 8, 2010 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jimmy

    Just want to say that we are both Homo Sapiens, modern humans Homo Sapiens-Sapiens and Neanderthals Homo Sapiens-Neanderthalensis. Both Homo Sapiens – both human.... my two cents.

    November 9, 2010 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Chris Volpe

    It's incorrect to say that "Neanderthals [were] less creative than humans", because it implies that Neanderthals weren't human, when in fact they were.

    November 10, 2010 at 05:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Cait

    Watch Life after people. We don't know what society was like back then, who knows what their society was like. They could have had art, but it faded and disappeared. 30,000 years ago and they were around before our ancestors were. I don't know, but after LIfe after people has me rethinking a great deal. I don't believe in the progressive theory that we get better as time goes on. No we advance and fall, only to advance again. Nothing is certain in this world, nothing. We can't see how intelligent someone was by their bones, but to be honest, there is A SINGLE GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T HAVE A SINGLE BIT OF THEIR BLOOD. Anyone quess? Africans don't have a single drop, but everyone else does.

    What does that tell you?

    November 15, 2010 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jen

    Richard, you seem to have forgotten Egypt, Mayan, Incan, and other civilizations. The Mayan calendar and mathematical system is extremely complex. Egypt was the cradle of civilization for centuries. Your generalization simply leaves out entire swaths of civilization and human innovation.

    November 18, 2010 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Gulf Breeze Barry

    Hey, they're not extinct. Look around. There's probably one or two right in your neighborhood.

    November 19, 2010 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Neanderthals

    Look around, Neanderthals are everywhere! Top 3 on the list!

    1. Bush/Cheney
    2. Most UFC fighters
    3. Kim Jong Il (and his son)

    November 29, 2010 at 08:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Neanderthals

      Not to mention this poster! 🙂


      November 29, 2010 at 08:19 | Report abuse |
    • Simon Gower

      You obviously don't know much about Neanderthal intelligence. Lacking creativity doesn't equate to lacking intelligence. In fact, pretty much all technological advancements have come via scientists as opposed to artists.

      April 16, 2012 at 21:33 | Report abuse |
  13. Marcrates

    There are so many variables that go into shaping a culture or society. Take for instance influential individuals. There does seem to be a trend in history of influential individuals making a profound impact on the direction and progress of a culture. A great thinker, prophet, artist, etc... can influence a society to move in a particular direction with more uniformity than it might have otherwise (assuming that the society has developed a language or a method of communicating the message through the generations.) It stands to reason that certain individuals' ability to inspire and motivate the masses had at least some impact on the rather rapid development of technology and society over the last 30,000 years.

    Of course, all of the cynical ones will discount this notion. They hate anything that hints at human consciousness being at least partially responsible for our development. They would rather consider us all biological computers with no sense of purpose or direction.

    December 29, 2010 at 10:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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