Stone me – he's smart, he's tough and he's equal to any Homo sapiens
TO MANY, the word Neanderthal conjures up an image of a knuckle-dragging, dim-witted caveman of inferior intellect to the modern human.
However, this is an impression that should be expelled from our minds, according to scientists who have revealed important new research on the intelligence of our ancient cousins.
They have found that, far from being stupid, Homo neanderthalensis were actually superior in some ways to Homo sapiens.
And they suggest that, rather than being a term of abuse, referring to someone as a "Neanderthal" should now be considered a compliment.
The study, in the Journal of Human Evolution, examined the ways that modern humans and Neanderthals used tools – one of the key indicators researchers use to understand primitive behaviour.
And the findings dash the assumption, held for the past 60 years, that modern humans used superior tools to Neanderthals.
The development of blades by Homo sapiens after they invaded Europe from Africa 40,000 years ago, has traditionally been considered a dramatic technological advance, which eventually eradicated our Stone Age cousins.
It was a theory that backed up the idea that modern humans used a superior intellect to drive Neanderthals to extinction about 30,000 years ago.
However, research now shows the wide flint tools used by Homo neanderthalensis were just as efficient as the narrower blades used by Homo sapiens.
In fact, when the scientists re-created both kinds of tool and tested their cutting ability and resilience, and the rate at which they could be manufactured, they found that in some respects the tools used by Neanderthals were actually more efficient.
Professor Dan Adler at the University of Connecticut, an anthropologist who previously showed Neanderthals were better hunters than Homo sapiens, said this was the latest evidence disputing the "racist assumption" that they were an inferior species.
He added: "It still doesn't seem to have sunk in that Neanderthals were particular savvy and dangerous."
Meanwhile, lead author of the report Metin Eren, from the University of Exeter, said
: "Homo neanderthalensis is a species that lasted in Ice Age Europe for hundreds of thousands of years.
"These guys were tough. There's evidence that they could take down Ice Age mammals almost single handedly.
"They lasted longer than us evolutionarily and they had larger brains than us. If anything, if you call someone a Neanderthal it should be a compliment."
Studies have already suggested that Neanderthals, shown by DNA to be a different species to humans, were also just as advanced in communication skills and hunting.
"There are many different pillars that have been holding up this idea that Neanderthals are stupider than our own species," said Mr Eren. "These have one by one been falling down. When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of 'stupid' or 'less advanced' and more in terms of 'different'. "
Now new reasons must be found to explain why Neanderthals vanished from Europe 28,000 years ago.
Mr Eren believes the most likely explanation is that Homo sapiens were simply able to breed more quickly.
"It's not that we were better than them," he said. "It's just that there were more of us."
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