Did a lack of culture kill off the Neanderthals?


New model suggests faster development put Homo sapiens at an advantage, leading to their ultimate dominance. Belinda Smith reports. 


The evidence suggests that Neanderthal culture remained static. – Lambert / ullstein bild / Getty Images

What killed the Neanderthals? Our Homo sapiens ancestors lived with their hominid neighbours – they even interbred – but around 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals disappeared.

Theories include disease, violence, and even inability to adapt to climate change – but a study published today suggests modern humans’ competitive edge came from their advanced culture.

Researchers from Stanford University and Meiji University in Tokyo used computer modelling to see how cultural development – such as art and tool-making – might help or hinder a species.

The modelling, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a small initial population of modern humans, with their cultural arsenal, could completely displace a larger Neanderthal population.

And when they introduced a positive feedback loop to the model – where more cultural development led to more competitive advantage which, in turn, led to more cultural development – the number of modern humans needed to push out a big group of Neanderthals dropped.

That’s not to say Neanderthals were completely culture-free. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of their tool-making, wearing clothing from animal hides and painting rocks.

But while Neanderthal culture remained static, that of modern humans flourished. With culture comes communication, such as conveying hunting grounds and techniques, and social networks.

Related reading: The Neanderthals live on in us.

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/01/25/1524861113
  2. https://cosmosmagazine.com/life-sciences/neanderthals-live-us
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