How to think like a Neandertal

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (12/2/12)


The term "Neandertal" often evokes negative imagery: an uncouth, ill-mannered, crude, primitive being that relied on muscle over mind. However, the real Neandertals -- the relatives of Homo sapiens that went extinct approximately 30,000 years ago -- were much more sophisticated. They had language and tool-making skills, were aggressive and intelligent hunters and even had a sense of humour. So, what really went on in the mind of a Neandertal? That's the question that University of Colorado professors Thomas Wynn, an anthropologist, and Frederick L. Coolidge, a psychologist, attempted to answer in their new book, How to Think Like a Neandertal.

According to Coolidge, Neandertals were excellent tool-makers. However, they "made essentially the same tools for 200,000 years," Coolidge explained to Quirk & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview. "It was sort of like, if it worked, why change it?" Coolidge believes there are several possible reasons for this. It could be due to lack of interest, lack of cognitive ability or lack of leisure time. It is estimated that Neandertals had "30 to 35 per cent greater metabolic requirements" than early Homo sapiens, which meant they had to dedicate more time to hunting, and had less time for other activities. Neandertals were aggressive hunters. Unlike Homo sapiens, who often hunted at a distance, Neandertals weren't afraid to get up close and personal with their prey. Coolidge explained that archeological evidence points to the fact that Neandertals' spears were not for throwing, but rather for "thrusting." This resulted in many injuries, especially above the waist.

But archeological evidence also suggests that Neandertals were able to recover from above-the-waist wounds. If it was the arms, chest, neck or head that was injured, "they took care of each other," Coolidge said. However, the same wasn't true for injuries below the waist. Why? These kinds of injuries hurt the group as a whole. "If you hurt your leg and you couldn't travel with the group, you died. That was it," Coolidge said. "It was going to hurt the whole group hunting."

Neandertals hunted and lived in groups of 10 to 40, whereas early Homo sapiens lived in groups as large as 140. Neandertals stuck close to home, Homo sapiens travelled thousands of miles. Homo sapiens engaged in making art and developed elaborate burial rituals; Neandertals did not. Homo sapiens could think in hypotheticals, which led to many developments in hunting, housing, leisure activities and governance, whereas Neandertals did not. 

While all this archeological and anthropological evidence points to distinct cognitive differences between Homo sapiens and Neandertals, Coolidge is keen to make one point clear: "We clearly have, for 100 years, underestimated Neanderthal abilities." It is a disservice to a species that survived for hundreds of thousands of years to simply cast them aside as the inferior cousins of Homo sapiens. "They were very much like us," Coolidge said, "but very much different from us."

Into the Silence cover.jpgHow To Think Like a Neandertal
by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

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From the publisher:

"There have been many books, movies, and even TV commercials featuring Neandertals - some serious, some comical. But what was it really like to be a Neandertal? How were their lives similar to or different from ours? In How to Think Like a Neandertal, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick L. Coolidge team up to provide a brilliant account of the mental life of Neandertals, drawing on the most recent fossil and archaeological remains."

Read more at Oxford University Press.