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From Neanderthal Skull to Neanderthal Brain?

The first draft of the Neanderthal genome, published in 2010, came with some titillating news. It showed that 50,000 years ago, these ancient hominids interbred with the ancestors of many modern humans. If you have European or Asian ancestry, an estimated 1 to 4 percent of your DNA came from Neanderthals.

On the off chance that your mind hasn’t gone there, allow me: Our ancestors, looking pretty much like we do today, had sex with the short, extremely muscular, big-nosed, big-browed, big-headed Neanderthals. Were the differences between the two species mostly physical, with shared intellectual and cultural pursuits the subjects of their pillow talk? Or were Neanderthals violent, mute, and stupid, as so often depicted in popular culture? Or something in between?

Neanderthals almost certainly weren’t as brutish as assumed a century ago. Anthropologists now know that they used tools, made art, and may have talked. Still, nobody fully knows how their brains worked, or how their thinking was different from ours. The uncertainty is understandable considering the evidence. All scientists have to go on are the fossilized skulls the Neanderthals left behind.

Using a new and somewhat controversial (more on that later) method of analyzing these ancient skulls, scientists in England have proposed a theory about the structure of the Neanderthal brain. Although the brains of our ancestors and Neanderthals were about the same size, Neanderthals had larger brain areas related to vision and body control, according to a study out today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

This implies, the researchers say, that compared with our ancestors, Neanderthals had less brain space for dealing with other skills and behaviors. For example, if the Neanderthals had less brain area devoted to social cognition, it might explain why they traveled shorter distances, had fewer symbolic artifacts and lived in smaller communities.

“One of the implications of differing brain organization we propose is that Neanderthals had smaller social networks than modern humans because Neanderthals had smaller areas in their brains to deal with social complexity,” says investigator Eiluned Pearce, a graduate student working with experimental psychologist Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford.

It’s an intriguing theory, no doubt. But some researchers wonder whether this isn’t paleo-phrenology*. Can crude anatomical relationships of the skull really reveal patterns of complex behavior?

An endocast of a heavily mineralized cranium once belonging to that of Homo sapiens who lived about 130,000 years ago. Courtesy of National History Museum London.
An endocast of a heavily mineralized cranium once belonging to that of Homo sapiens who lived about 130,000 years ago. Courtesy of Natural History Museum London.

Pearce’s team began with published data from a few dozen cranial ‘endocasts’, or rubber moldings made from the inside of skulls to show the shape of the outer brain. For this study, the researchers weren’t interested in the shape of the endocasts but rather their volume, to use as a proxy for brain size.

For each endocast, they also looked at the size of the eye sockets, or orbits. Studies of other primates have shown an interesting anatomical relationship: The bigger the eye, the bigger the visual cortex, the region at the back of the brain that interprets light signals from the retina to produce vision.

Comparing the endocasts made from 21 skulls of Neanderthals and 38 skulls of our ancestors, the researchers found that Neanderthals had larger orbits (after controlling for body size). That suggests that they also had larger eyes and visual cortices.

The findings agree with studies of endocast shape showing that Neanderthals had relatively larger occipital lobes (where the visual cortex resides) than our ancestors did, notes Emiliano Bruner, an anthropologist from the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. “We must seriously take into consideration that different human species may have had different cognitive capacities,” he says. “It is worth noting that ‘different’ does not mean worse or better, but just different.”

Why would the Neanderthals have larger eyes than our ancestors? The study suggests it’s because the Neanderthals evolved in Europe, at higher latitudes than hominids in Africa. At higher latitudes, they were exposed to lower light levels, requiring larger eyes for the same level of visual acuity. But other experts say this has nothing to do with vision. According to Bergmann’s Rule, species living in colder climates are larger than those living in warmer climates. “Humans at higher latitudes are bigger, and therefore have bigger orbits, than humans at lower latitudes,” says Trenton Holliday, an anthropologist at Tulane University.

Another problem, Holliday says, is that the researchers didn’t correct for the size of the face. Orbit size is known to increase with face size, and Neanderthals had larger faces than our ancestors did. “What I suspect is that if they correct for facial size, then the differences in relative size of the visual part of the brain will disappear,” he says.

The effect of face size “is definitely an avenue for further research,” Pearce says. But she doesn’t think it will make a difference. “Although overall body or face size might influence orbit size to some extent, a larger orbit still means a larger eye and therefore a larger visual cortex, which is our argument.”

But those are all technical concerns. The more interesting issue, to me, is the notion that the size of a brain area — the visual cortex, say — can say anything about how the Neanderthal brain worked. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the last century of neuroscience, it’s that the brain isn’t really modular. Yes, certain regions are specialized to process certain types of sensory inputs and are active during certain tasks. But they’re all part of distributed functional networks, and we’re nowhere near understanding how those networks lead to this or that behavior. Plus, we’ve learned from studies of injury that the brain is incredibly plastic, capable of finding several neural routes to carry out the same behavior.

So given all that, does it make sense to claim that Neanderthals didn’t have higher-order social cognition simply because their brains aren’t set up for it exactly like ours are?


Franz Gall, the founder of phrenology, had some things to say about the occipital lobe of female homo sapiens. According to the 2003 book Labeling People: “Gall also thought that, since women’s heads were larger in the back and their foreheads lower and smaller than those of men, they therefore sensed and judged differently, and their inferior organization made them superstitious.”

Postscript (11:52am EST): 

The authors of the new study and one of my other sources have written me with responses to this post that I think are interesting and important, so I’ve copied them below.

The authors also asked me why I included the quote about phrenology at the end, and I think that’s a fair question. My intent was not to imply that this study is essentially phrenology, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I guess my point is simply that we (in the media, but also scientists) must always be careful about how to interpret any particular finding. In this case, the study shows a contrast between the visual systems of Neanderthals and our ancestors. That could underlie a difference in their social processing, or it could very well not. The Gall example shows how these sorts of interpretations sometimes go too far. (I think today’s news coverage of this study makes my point pretty clearly.)

Now for what the real experts think:

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum (one of the study’s authors): 

Re. larger face = larger eyes, these separately or together both  point in the same direction of requiring more working space in the brain (somatic + visual)

“So given all that, does it make sense to claim that Neanderthals didn’t have higher-order social cognition simply because their brains aren’t set up for it exactly like ours are?”

No it doesn’t make sense to claim that, and I don’t think we claimed that – the implication instead is that, for example, Neas would not have been able to regulate such large social groups, and therefore would not have had the benefits of those larger social groups. A smaller size for the latter would have had implications for their level of social complexity and their ability to create, conserve and build on innovations.

Emiliano Bruner:

I am surprised by the “debate” moving around on this paper. I mean, I agree we are dealing with inferences and speculation, but this is science, based on probability. Caution is recommended: as always. People find “normal” and fascinating making behavioural inferences from a single gene or molecule, but raise doubts for this complex analysis which takes into consideration so many factors. Furthermore, this study seems extremely detailed and careful when compared with usual standards in paleontology, which are often based on simply descriptions or basic statistics. Frequently, simple or even superficial approaches generate agreement or, at least, no criticism. In contrast if an approach is more complicated, it generates diffidence.

This article is not about paleo-phrenology, but it is about correlations. Apart from the hypothesis on climate and so on, the evidences of this paper come from correlations which, independently upon the adequacy of the theories to explain the causes (which of course are the ultimate aim in science and must be debated) represent an actual discovery, and an interesting proposal for further researches.

49 thoughts on “From Neanderthal Skull to Neanderthal Brain?

  1. What has generated the most buzz is the claim in the paper about a direct relationship between the enlarged visual cortex in Neanderthals and their extinction:

    “While the physical response to high latitude conditions adopted by Neanderthals may have been very effective at first, the social response developed by AMHs seems to
    have eventually won out in the face of the climatic instability that characterized high-latitude Eurasia at this time.”

    This seems to me to be an extremely tenuous connection, we don’t know for example if the smaller social groups of Neanderthals were a result of their lesser social intelligence (which may or may not have been ’caused’ by their improved visual acuity) or of something else. Say in response to ecological pressures of Ice Age Europe.
    We also don’t know if this is what gave us “the edge”, it would be equally viable to suggest that they required a higher caloric intake and thus were reliant on the disappearing megafauna for survival.

    Spectacular hypotheses (and I just that word loosely) about extinction may make headlines, but they are not necessarily good science.

  2. I don’t think that it has been proven yet that humans and neanderthals interbred. Also if this is true I would doubt this DNA could make up 1-4% of the DNA in modern humans-that number seems too high.

  3. This is a somewhat older article by Carl Zimmer on the genetic research referenced to, but it is rather clear in it´s explanation of the work by Paabo et al.

    `They discovered that people out of Africa share some mutations in common with Neanderthals that are not found in Africans. They concluded that humans and Neanderthals must have interbred after our species expanded from Africa, and that about 2.5% of the genomes of living non-Africans comes from Neanderthals.`


  4. Western Anthropologists often have a parochial and provincial attitude toward extinct and extant examples of humanity that differ too much from them in physical appearance.

  5. It’s pretty common across animals to make inferences based on brain region size; rodents have small visual cortices and enlarged olfactory cortices and rely on these sensory modalities less and more, respectively.

    In humans, london cabbies that must remember every street of London have an enlarged hippocampus. In animals, this happens all the time; seasonal fluctuations in brain region size correlating with the propensity to use that region.

  6. Describing this hypothesis as “somewhat controversial” is a major understatement, judging by the way bioanthropologists at my university are reacting to it. Suffice it to say this paper is already very unpopular. It’s really quite a leap to say “bigger eyes = less brain for socializing,” and the authors’ casual dismissal of other factors really doesn’t cut it for me–factors such as: facial prognathism, the larger brains of Neanderthals as compared to H. sapiens, the fact that certain populations of humans today have larger eyes (due simply to adaptive variation across latitudes), and the presence of a specialized occipital bun in Neanderthals to accommodate that region of the brain.

    But congratulations to the authors on getting paleophrenology past peer review.

  7. As I earlier pointed out to the paleoanthropology list, there is a very large amount of variation in Neandertal occipital lobes, and there isn’t a single Neandertal specimen which allow one to delineate the primary visual cortex (PVC) , or what is know as Brodmann’s area 17 on any of the endocasts, which would allow one to conclude that there was relatively less parietal association cortex anterior to the occipital lobes. The degree of protrusion and size of occipital lobes in modern humans is also quite large, and I can show occipital lobes for some large modern human endocasts as large as, say, La Ferrassie. There is also clear evidence of variation in PVC in different human populations, as for example, in Australian aborigines which have been reported to have almost 2x the PVC occipital cortical volume as some Europeans. Surely one would not try to predict the quality/quantity of their social behavior from this. My feeling is that the authors have had this conclusion in mind for some time, and have found by correcting data sets statistically (I regard it as statistical theater) have the results they anticipated. I think the possibility of allometric relationships between overall facial size and orbit size really needs to be tied down, and to argue, as Chris does, that large faces mean more sensorimotor occupation of the cortex, and thus taking facial size into consideration strikes me as begging the issue. Nevertheless, this paper offers other players in the Neandertal demise game a good opportunity to follow up with more detailed studies.

  8. Alison, of course humans bred with Neanderthals. 50,000 to 75,000 years many times in the region of teh eastern Mediterranean!

  9. Alison, of course humans and Neanderthals interbred 50,000 to 75,000 years ago in the region of the eastern Mediterranean!

  10. According to my genome results I am 7.4% hominid (both Neanderthal and Denisovan). I would really enjoy a blog type format where people with similar genotypes could share experiences. Currently my doctor is at a ‘complete loss’ as to why my cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar numbers are so great given my weight; for now I’m attributing it to my Hominid ancestry

  11. Lisa, what company did you use for genetic testing. I wonder if those who have neandertal are in any percentage likely to have Denisovan as well, I guess I did not think of them being in the same person. I really do not like the phrenology reference at the end as well…to bring in an antiquated reference based on gender bias into a paper that is genuinely trying to determine the actual differences in adaptation and evolution between separate though interbreeding species seems rather cheap and it reads like a slap in the face to anyone who read the article all the way through with thoughtfulness, as though we are being rapped on the wrist with a ruler for giving serious consideration to the theories of scientists. I am so glad the scientists responded and questioned the legitimacy of the phrenology reference, this is real science, not “The Bell Curve”.

    1. Alana I had my genotype done through national geographic I can’t remember the exact percentages, but I’m predominantly Mediterranean and Asian although my ‘ more recent family’ is Northern European. From the info I received it sounds like my ancestors were wondering back and forth along the northern Mediterranean shore before heading north into Europe. Maybe they put that last ‘dig’ about gender in just ‘ for effect.’ ? My other completely uneducated speculation is that the Hominids still had some sort of estrus cycle while the ‘modern’ humans? Well, we don’t. Maybe the Hominids just got ‘out-sexed.’ 🙂

      1. Isn’t it rational to conclude (in line with known environmental factors) that groups of early human hunter gatherers migrated with their prey animals? That climate change or population pressures and the opportunity to exploit sparsley inhabited wilderness would be a factor? Perhaps these sparsley inhabited areas were the domain of small neanderthal groups who were ‘over-run’ by larger groups of modern humans and subsumed or wiped out?
        I realise we have to hypothesize, that’s a given. Too many however seem to be making unfounded assumptions based on the flimsiest of evidence. Undoubtedly neanderthals interbred with modern humans, that’s no longer at issue. Were neanderthals a branch of homo sapien from an earlier migration event? Or did they share a common ancestor with modern humans? The genetic evidence shows how closely related both kinds of homo were, is there any suggestion that perhaps neanderthal were closer to the common ancestor morphologically than homo sapiens?

  12. All one has to to do to understand the fate of the Neanderthals is to look at modern human bahavior. What I have seen repeatedly happen in any given society of humans is that those who are most socially adept use those skills to amass wealth and power. They then form a strict hirearchy based on who is the most socially adept and discriminate ruthlessly against those who are deemed to have inferior social skills, regardless of whatever talents they may otherwise have. They will actually become angry or irritated by those not socially adept for not paying them their social dues (commonly referred to as kissing one’s backside) If you do not believe it, just look at how a monarchy is structured, which happens to be the commonest form of social governing construct throughout modern human history. If the Neanderthals were commonly inferior in social skills, then they never stood a chance when the Cro-Magnons arrived on the scene. They would have been ruthlessly discriminated against, even regarded as inhuman monsters. I fancy that legends of orcs and ogres may be folklore remenants of descriptions of Neanderthals.

  13. Visual acuity can, indeed, be a basis for larger eyes and therefore, more brain processing area. To imply that this has something to do with social organization is unsupported. Nature has interesting ways of responding to environmental stresses. In peoples exposed to dry climates (hot or cold) the nasal structure accommodates the need to humidify and cool/warm incoming air. Sickle-cell anemia was a response to malaria. So why couldn’t the larger eyes be a response to narrowed eye slits meant to avoid snow blindness in glacial regions? I’ve not seen any Neanderthal reconstructions that took this possibility into consideration. Has anyone investigated the occipital lobes of native Aleutian people? They have narrow eyes to which they added “sun glasses” that were bone or wood with slits to see through. Do the Aleuts have larger eye sockets and dedicated brain areas? Are their social skills meager?

  14. The problem with many biologists is that they have a very limited understanding of math, (physics, chemistry or mechanics as well); they refuse to take advice from scientists who posses these abilities and end up publishing such useless papers. Amazing some of the stuff that gets past peer reviews.

  15. What is so interesting here is that the large nose indicates a dry arid environment. And that sure is not Europe so where did the Neaders originate?

  16. I believe that our better-than-thou attitude is inherent in our Germanic genes. That is, we believe that we are godly and see others as being inferior. It is a defect that we will never overcome until we too become extinct.

    That is why we call ourselves “modern humans” instead of “present-day humans” and have less positive names for the “other” humans. So most Germanic scientists (American, English, French, Spanish, etc.) always have and always will depict others unlike themselves as being less beautiful, less intelligent, less athletic, less cultured and less creative. And, they will look for, and find, scientific proof that will justify their “godly” view.

    It wasn’t long ago that these scientists declared that Neanderthals were a race of non-humans unrelated to Homo sapiens, modern humans. But, we now know that “modern humans” are just Neanderthals that were overtaken by the more numerous Homo sapiens. Or in other words, present-day humans are actually Neanderthals conveniently depicted as being Homo sapiens.
    I suspect that what happened to the Neanderthal is what happened to the Aztec Indians in Mexico. By the time that the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez reached what is now Mexico City, 80% of the ruling Aztecs were sick with small pox. Aztec messengers (relay runners) brought the deadly European decease to the tribe after having contact with the invaders on the coast.
    At the hands of the Cortez and European decease, the Aztec s and their rule over the Mexicas and other tribes became extinct.
    I believe that the Neanderthal had a similar fate. And although they may have been stronger and smarter than the Homo sapiens, they were not immune to the invaders’ deceases.
    As for the flourishing of art among the homo sapians in what is now Europe, I suspect that we will soon discover that our Neanderthal genes had something to do with it. Otherwise, the flourishing of the art would have occurred long before the Homo sapiens’ encounter with the Neanderthal.

  17. The content of this finding and the way that the authors defended is reminiscent of the long-held assumption that humans have a much prefrontal cortex (PFC) than our closest primate relatives. Over the past few years, a number of papers have shown this to be false, and that the human PFC shows the same proportion as a chimp’s when scaled allometrically. It appears that previous findings that we have an over-represented PFC was merely statistical artifact.

    We may have the same kind of problem here. Before jumping to conclusions about how neanderthals reasoned, we need to sort out if their enlarged visual cortex was a result of allometric scaling rather than an adaptation to a visual pressure. If the increase is due to a selective pressure then the argument may have some merit. If it is simply a matter of scaling, the brain would have probably adapted by to the increase the volume of the occipital lobes by increasing folding in other areas

  18. Based on their environmental conditions, the ability to see great distances, accurately, yet with the ability to stop-out the amount of reflected light would have been critical to those Neanderthal people living under frigid conditions. Even during inter-glacials, it is unlikely that sufficient selective pressure would exist to reduce the size of the occipital orbits and, concomitantly, the brain’s occipital lobes. The North American Eskimo (or Inuit) is a model for this consideration. Several articles exist on cranial dimensions of Inuit people. Refer to “Studies in Historical Anthropology, vol. 2:2002[2005], pp. 79–87
    Frequency arrangement of cranioscopic features of the Eskimo and American Indian skulls” by Alina Wiercińska. The orbits are larger than in populations not requiring the need to see long distances, regardless of light availability. Further, native Inuit people have narrowed eyes to restrict the amount of light that might be reflected off of ice and snow. Supplementing these adaptations, the Inuits made “sun-glasses” out of wood, bone or ivory. They consisted of strips with slits cut in them to reduce the amount of light that entered the eye.

    I can agree that if Neanderthal people were significantly less intelligent than the Cro Magnon, they would not have coexisted nearly as long as they did. I believe there were other factors involved: one is biological and the other is social. Taken together, they explain why the amount of Neanderthal genes appear at the low frequency that they do — but that they DO appear, and why the Neanderthals went extinct. Or did they? There remains a group of people which may be the descendants of the Neanderthal. And this group is fast disappearing through forced assimilation. I would love to investigate this! Anybody want to give me a research grant of about $100K to do so?

  19. Just putting it out there but is it not possible Neanderthals had larger eyes due to sexual selection? After all even today woman with large eyes are considered cute. Not sure what this would do to the “visual cortex” but I think a lot of Neanderthal traits are due to sexual selection. I.e. large eyes, a large masculine brow , strong rugged body’s(that are frankly far more powerful than necesessy). We know they wore feathers and decorated themselves with oaka. Look at all the physical traits in humans today that offer little to no advantage but rise to promanace because it confers sexual advantage(blue eyes, blond hair, etc)..

  20. Oh Dear! As a geologist I see a problem in anthropology / genetics / evolution science similar to Geology before plate tectonics provided a unifying driver for what used to be fragments of local physical evidence.
    One severe problem seems to be the (outdated) idea of species, which sufficed for 19th C. types who collected specimens and needed a way to file them away in museums. Advancements in science – technology require a more comprehensive definition.

  21. although interesting much of this pure speculation. P.s. just adding to a previous comment. Not so long ago there was a lot of theories about Neanderthal man’s nose I.e. it warmed the air before it entered the body they had a better sense of smell. But when put to the test it offered no such advantages, so is it not possible this too could of been sexual pressure perhaps Neanderthals with large eyes, promenant brows, big noses and a body builders body got more mates? Since this is all speculation anyway and we’ve already made comparison with other species look at a second ice age Europe creature the Irish Elk sexual selection drove for massive overdevelopment of the antler which possibly contributed to their demise.

    No I think until more facts come to light we’ll be as the early geologist wondering around picking up rocks and scratching our heads thinking how did that happen.

    1. This is a reply to Kyle O. Actually, most of the comments provide some evidence for their claims, I think you will notice. Further, they provide reasoning along with their ideas. As I read your note, I wonder where your support is for your claims. What we do know about the human nose is that (a) it does provide an opportunity for air to be warmed/moistened in climates where this is a benefit, (b) a flattened or even bulbous nose offers more protection against frost-bite than a sharp one, (c) there is just a small patch of neurons that are responsible for sensing odors. What is not known is if Neanderthal had a richer network of those neurons or if the patch was actually larger. In animals where the sense of smell is critical, like dogs, the part of the brain known as the rhinencephalon is larger, relative to overall brain size, than in humans. In fact, my anatomy professor told us long ago that this is the portion that was modified to serve as the center for higher thought in humans. So far, I haven’t read of anyone chasing down this point with Nearnderthal skull endocasts. So far, it is my speculation that they had (a) bigger eye sockets for greater visual acuity and (b) a better sense of smell. So while I acknowledge that I have no evidence proving the point, I do provide a basis for it. (BTW, comparing the antlers on the Irish Elk to body shape in Neanderthals is a bit of a stretch.)

  22. A great deal of baggage accompanies discussions about human origins. Old myths, prejudices and tall tales – “guesses” cling to poor old Neanderthal and the “quest” for who we are. The toughest thing for humans to understand is that we live in a literal universe. Neanderthals were real individual people who had to wake up each morning (without coffee!) and survive, which they accomplished for 250,000 years (?). I wish we could drop the urgent need to dominate (define and pigeon hole) these humans, just as we try to dominate the present. It’s a social compulsion and has no place in science! Our strength is technology; otherwise our brain’s processing of information is pretty dismal and self-centered. We were not created to be master’s of the universe! There is nothing to say that we are intelligent except our own egos. This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to expand our knowledge and search for answers, but some patience and humility would further that goal. Stop jumping to conclusions! Nature is a lot more complex and interesting than our subjective opinions.

  23. I don’t understand why Neanderthals would have evolved large eyes in a glacial climate? But they clearly did! The reflective sunlight would have been unbearable. Would this not have had an evolutionary pressure to reduce the size of the eyes instead? (As stated above, Inuits restict the amount of sunlight using “bone sunglasses”).
    Unless, Neanderthals became nocturnal to avoid the glare of the sun. Then the large eyes would make sense. If this was so, I don’t see why being able to see in the dark reduces other brain capabilities?
    Neanderthals defintely had brains that were a different shape to Cro-Magnon man. It is not then unreasanable to speculate that their brains worked differently to ours? That they thought different thoughts? This doesn’t mean that their thoughts were inferior, just that they were different. (for further speculation on those differences check out the book TOTAL MAN by Stan Gooch. ) These difference are of relevance to us toaday as we are infact a hybrid of both Neanderthal and Cro Magnon man. (Is it no coincidence that the “great explosion” of human creativity happened around the time of the first encounters between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons????!!!!)
    The small percentage of Neanderthal DNA (4%ish) present in us today, seems to suggest that the interbreeding was small. However, if Neanderthals were Rhesus negative and Cro-Magnon man Rhessus positive, this could explain the small %. Even if the two populations lived side by side and interbred for thousands of years, the Neanderthal proportion would steadily decrease. This being due to Neanderthal mothers not being able to have more than one Rhesus Positive baby (Cro-Magnon). Cro-Magnon males and females could have multiple offspring from either group, whereas, Neanderthal females could only have multiple offspring by Neanderthal males. Over time the Neanderthal traits would decline in the overall population.

    Can any clever boffins out there run a computer programme to predict how much Neanderthal DNA would remain today if the above was true? Allowing for the first interbreeding to have taken place 35,000-40,000 years ago. I would be interested to see the results.

    Does anyone also know if it is possible to determine blood types from Neanderthal DNA? In particular Rhesus+ and Rhesus-. If so, has it been done? Any links would be gratefully appreciated aswell as any feedback on any of the above.

  24. Does anyone know why Neanderthal, Denisovan and Homo Sapien remains are found in caves?
    Are the individuals being buried? If so, why are the caves not full to bursting with graves like modern day cemeteries? It would only take a few generations to fill up a whole cave floor. Would they not be removing the dead to be buried outside the cave?
    If the caves are being occupied and used as living space, then a body is not going to be just left in the corner to decompose. (a bit smelly)
    Have the bodies been left behind at the end of a period of occupation? All the other members of the group having died or moved on to another location and so not able to deal with the body? The body then being covered over naturally over a period of time?
    Or are the caves just a place to lay the dead before burial and ,for what ever reason, the burial never took place?

    There has to be a simple explanation.

    Any ideas out there?

    1. I think the entire discussion of human ancestry suffers from a giant flaw, which is the assumption that modern human behavior can be used to describe our ancestors. Thousands of years of accumulated culture stand in the way – we cannot claim that early humans were social “like us.” Our current social behavior may date back no farther than the advent of urban living and our hyper socialization may result from selection for that domestic traits. Social cultures have been killing off indigenous “wild” humans for a very long time, and continue to do so.

      A second flaw: Why ignore the fact that there are many species that achieve their social organization without anything like the human brain? How can we claim that we are the standard for social behavior when we are not very good at getting along? Stupendous energy, resources and violence are necessary to keep humans from destroying each other. Not a great model of social success!

  25. I would like to clone and raise one it would be interesting teach it sign language have grow up and interbreed with a human if it can

  26. It isn’t the size of your brain that counts , it is the material that you put into it and wish to retain.. 3.5% neanderthal here… who’s to say who is the smartest, can learn the fastest, retain the most, be the best at every function mental or physical… a lot of work for our brains…which are affected from birth (or before) to death by many interactions social and environmental… etc etc.. Whoever claims to be the expert- has many other experts to deal with ( I am not one of them but would dispute with them, as I have 79 years on this earth)

    1. Humans are arrogant: it’s Nature that decides – when the environment changes, new parameters select the individuals that have the capability (mutations) that allow for adaptation. In our case, culture and technology have so over-adapted our species that we’re destroying the global environment and killing off swaths of species. Our argument over “who is the smartest” is very premature. To answer that, the shit will have to hit the fan – soon, maybe.

  27. “If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the last century of neuroscience, it’s that the brain isn’t really modular.”

    Woah, what? That’s definitely not what we have learned. “Modular” doesn’t necessarily mean “this part of the brain = compassion,” it means specific areas or groups of areas deal with specific tasks/computations. Regardless, since the distributed functional networks you alluded to that would be involved in higher order social cognition are unlikely to involve lower order somatosensory or visual cortex, that argument is pretty irrelevant to the inferences being made in the paper.

    That said, I have a really hard time seeing differences in visual cortex accounting for, let alone more than accounting for, differences of up to 300 cubic centimeters of brain size between neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. Sure, there’s somatosensory/motor cortex too, so you can make the encephalization argument, but neanderthals didn’t actually weigh any more than a well-nourished modern human, either the slightly overweight norm of the US or an active AMH with little fat and good muscle mass.

    The most convincing argument in my view is that neanderthals were simply less domesticated, and so less neonatized than modern humans, which would mean bigger brains. Note this doesn’t mean less intelligence, but it does probably mean less aggression and less independence.

  28. Having 3.5% Neanderthal DNA I am small in stature, narrow shoulders, average size skull etc.. How many neanderthals skulls have they recovered, You cannot take just one or even a few skulls and determine the size of the entire neanderthal population… All I can say is Look around you, There are many shapes and sizes of humans.. I say the neanderthals were poor humans who lived in caves… and no less intelligent than humans…

  29. If Neas did live at higher altitudes for the most part than Homo Sapiens sapiens, then they would have tended to be healthier and their brains would have been more active given the slightly hypoxic state of those living at higher altitudes which means that due to the lowered competition from Oxygen, they would have maintained higher levels of circulating CO2 as well as higher levels of CO2 in their alviolae. That would mean that more of the oxygen available would have been better distributed to their cells and tissues. Given that the brain uses by far the greatest amount of oxygen available when there is sufficient CO2 available as per the Bohr or Verigo relationship, better oxygen distribution would have taken place at these higher altitudes as is the case today where people living at higher altitudes live longer and their brains actually function more efficiently. You can review some of this if you check the conversation between myself and Dr. Ray Peat on Youtube about the Biology of Carbon Dioxide

  30. Besides the ridiculous “eye size” stuff, the most egregious mistake is in thinking that an animal with enhanced visual processing would be stupid because visual information / thinking is worthless. Why would Neanderthals have needed “social networks”? Really? They didn’t read or write: they perceived the environment using their senses, like any other mammal. Dump one of these scientists in the wilderness and see how smart they are. And by the way, there are humans today who are visual thinkers and we’re damn smart, thank-you.

  31. One of the most fascinating things about this article is its STAYING POWER. It was originally published here over two years ago and people are still commenting about it! Maybe other articles also attract this kind of attention, but nevertheless, this is impressive!

    Now, about substance: Neanderthal people were hunters based on all of the archeological evidence. Although Cro-Magnon man was a hunter as well, plant remains found in association with them hints at gathering as a substantial activity. (I’m getting this second hand — a true archeologist can correct me if I’m mistaken.) The main point is that hunters are more often than not solitary. When they make a kill, they may call others to assist with rendering the prey, but otherwise, they don’t have a lot of reason to be “social.” What is known (from articles even predating this one) is that humans living at higher latitudes DO tend to have larger eyes and portions of the brain needed to process the increased visual information is also larger. And, as I’ve already pointed out a couple of times, the need to stop out reflected light and harmful radiation from the sun is real, especially in polar climes. As Inuit people originated in what is now Siberia, and are of Mongol heritage, their eye shape, size and brain characterization makes sense. Why would anyone not conclude that Neanderthal followed the same patter —- only earlier?

  32. Latitude

    The sun’s rays are strongest at the equator, where the sun is most directly overhead and UV rays must travel the least distance through the atmosphere. Ozone also is naturally thinner in the tropics compared to the mid- and high-latitudes, so there is less ozone to absorb the UV radiation as it passes through the atmosphere. At higher latitudes, the sun is lower in the sky, so UV rays must travel a greater distance through ozone-rich portions of the atmosphere and, in turn, expose those latitudes to less UV radiation.

    “Increased visual information at higher latitudes” What does that mean? How do large eyes “stop out” reflected light and UV radiation? What were they doing, skiing in the Alps? Neanderthal lived at different latitudes (Israel is hardly the far north) and during climate variations.

  33. The combination of large eyes for gathering light plus the ability to narrow the eyes works like the condenser of a microscope and diaphragm. Small openings can admit intense light, but when the light is dim, a larger opening is needed. The eye’s iris does a great job of this, but even it has limits. It is important to realize that the fossil remains come from different times. The Inuit, as an example, are believe to have developed about 2,000 years ago, from their ancestral stock. This is the veritable blink of the eye! Neanderthal populated various areas over a time period of at least 100,000 years and accommodated their environment (and its changes) the best that they could; but that doesn’t mean ALL groups responded in the same way. Further, if language was developed among these people, it is illogical to think that all Neanderthal spoke the same tongue. For example, look at regional differences in terminology and dialect here in the United States. Moreover, compare the English spoken in Central Los Angeles to that spoken in Sydney, Australia. The point then, is that we have very limited information about Neanderthal. We need more; and while theories put forth are useful in stimulating study, they are not necessarily the answer in and of themselves.

  34. Just thought I would throw this into the debate.
    (At last people are discussing the large eyes)

    It seems strange to me that Neanderthals would evolve large eye socket for better vision, when they lived through two ice ages. During these ice ages, the European neanderthals were cut of from the rest of the world and had nowhere to go. They either evolved and adapted or died out. So why evolve large eye sockets?
    The glare from the reflected sunlight off the snow and ice would have been a real hindrance. Snow blindness would have been a major obstacle to survival in a very hostile environment.
    Didn’t Inuits make ‘sunglasses’ from strips of bone to shield their eyes from the glare of the sun, to overcome this problem?

    But Neanderthals clearly did evolve large eye sockets. Maybe the answer is that the glare and snow blindness were a real problem, so they started to avoid going out in the full glare of the daytime. If they started to go out in the twilight to avoid the glare, then there would then be an advantage to evolve larger eyes.

    Did the Neanderthals become nocturnal?

    This nocturnal adaptation would have evolved before the neanderthals were clever enough to make their own bone ‘sunglasses’ or other means of eye protection.
    The nocturnal lifestyle would have been entrenched long before the ability to make sophisticated tools arose. Once the large eye sockets were developed, going out in daylight would have been even less favourable, reinforcing the adaptation. The evolutionary pressure to develope smaller eyes for daytime use would not have arisen. The nocturnal lifestyle would work just as well in the interglacial periods so there would not have been an evelotionary pressure to change back again?

    Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of why Cro-Magnon, not neanderthals survived. It wasn’t better technology, intelligence or better organisation. Being able to go out during the day was more adventageous to Cro Magnons and that gave them the vital survival edge.

    All speculation of course, but then, isn’t it all?!

    I must add that these aren’t my original ideas but lifted from others.

    Let me know what you think.

  35. FYI: Cro-Magnon were not successful; they became extinct. Neanderthals were around for hundreds of thousands of years.
    No one has established that they had eyes that were abnormal size for their physiology. Evolution does not happen like Rudyard Kipling’s :Just So” stories, like “How the elephant got it’s Trunk” Besides, the Neanderthals didn’t live where there was snow on the ground for thousands of years: most glacial time periods are EXTREMELY DRY due to water being tied up in the glaciers.

    1. In reply to bo moore, please review the following article: http://evoandproud.blogspot.com/2011/08/brain-size-latitude-and-ambient-light.html

      The discussion regarding eye size and light availability for Neanderthal people to flourish is, to me, a bit of a canard. More likely eye size is associated with hunting. In the animal kingdom, more predators appear to have greater visual acuity than the prey. Check that out yourself, if you care to. Neanderthal people had to exist in equilibrium with their environment — as must most people then and now have to. (A few have central heating and air conditioning, but then it is doubtful that most of us need to hunt game for dinner.) The capability to gather visual information about spatial location as well as faint odors had to play a major role in their daily life — more so perhaps than Cro Magnon who appear to also have been gathers, as well, and maybe less dependent on mobile prey. If my surmise is close to correct, it would explain why Neanderthal eyes were larger and why brain size was also larger, proportional to body size. It does not have anything to do with intelligence nor social values. The first, intelligence, is relative to what the individual animal needs to do to survive. Clearly, a stupid animal, or one that won’t learn will likely be less successful (defined as surviving to procreate) than one that does “catch on” faster. As to society, I thought about this and conclude that it is naive arrogance on our part to ascribe to a people that we only know through their bones how they may have interacted with each other — or with “alien beings.”

      1. “Naïve arrogance” Well – you’re finally catching on. I blog about Asperger’s and these same problems apply: social typical people project their own extreme social obsessions onto EVERYTHING, and deem any behavior outside their claustrophobic concepts as being pathological. They must try to explain “others” using a childish set of judgmental beliefs. Asperger’s are visual thinkers, so we have that in common with all pre-agriculture / urban humans.

  36. With all due respect to bo moore, and remaining cognizant of the importance of understanding Asperger’s syndrome, I think it is important to remain focused on the thrust of the article regarding Neanderthal people and not allow ourselves to become sidetracked by other issues.

    1. But the two are connected; visual processing was primary in early humans and still is in Asperger people. Asperger’s is a fundamental avenue to understanding early humans. Pardon my incorrect assumption that this information would be a welcome addition to the discussion.

  37. It would be an interesting study to compare the percent of Neanderthal genes in modern man to IQ range. If people with high percentages of Neanderthal genes tend to have higher IQ’s what would that indicate?

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