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Razib points me to this press release announcing a study estimating Neandertal intelligence by way of their stone tool set. The press is running wild with this news. The Independent put out a piece on it. So has the Guardian. Even the BBC has got something to say about it. And the story has made it to front pages of Slashdot, Digg, and Wired. Unfortunately, the research paper has not yet been published, but it will be appearing in the Journal of Human Evolution under this title, “Are Upper Paleolithic blade cores more productive than Middle Paleolithic discoidal cores? A replication experiment.”

In lieu of the primary source, I have extracted some information from the news I’ve read. The lead author of the paper is Metin Eren. He and the archaeologists on his team did some experimental archaeology. In other words, they recreated the Neandertal tool set as well as the more modern human tool set. The summary that Brandon Keim, of Wired, provided is rather misleading. Keim says that they analyzed tools used by Neandertals — not really. From what I can tell, Eren and crew made some wide flakes (from discoidal cores) that resembled Neandertal and human tools from the Middle Paleolithic tools and compared them to more specialized narrow blades made by modern humans, from the Upper Paleolithic, who came from a more recent expansion out of Africa.

Flakes were made by archaic Homo somewhere around 250,000 years ago. It involved taking rock like flint and subjecting it to percussion flaking. This created fragments where one side resembles a bi-convex, shell-like shape. Another heavy percussion blow to the bottom of the piece resulted in a convex lens-like shape. This methodology, often called the Levallois technique, was perfected by Neandertals into what is now known as the Mousterian culture.

Aside from being narrow, blades are more or less parallel flakes of brittle rock, like flint, chert and obsidian. They are most often twice as long as wide and the cross section of a blade is triangular or trapezoidal. Blades functioned in many different tools from knives to scrapers, spear tips, drills, awls, bruins, etc.

The authors next measured circumference of these stone tools using a method developed by Adobe and Think Computer corporations. With this, they were able to calculate how much cutting-edge was created and estimate the production efficiency as well as the life time of the tool. Their results indicate that there was no technical advantage to blades from the Upper Paleolithic. And, they conclude that Homo sapiens were not more advanced than Neandertals. Eren comments, saying,

“It’s not a better technology, it’s just a different technology.”

This is not a very surprising result. And I agree with Eren that we need to stop thinking Neandertals as clumbering cavemen. Razib has already outlined some of the basic facts, i.e. Neandertals had big brains and other conquest during human history were not won by ‘great technological imbalances.’ In 1997, people recovered mammalian DNA from the surfaces of Neandertal stone tools, which showed they were able to take down large game like rhinos and mammoths. Clearly, a sign of an intelligent being.

All this ‘let’s rethink Neandertals as intelligent beings’ reminds me of February’s isotopic study on a Neandertal tooth. There was so much press buzzing around, stating that, “Ohhh new fancy research shows Neandertals were mobile.” When in fact, any logical person would have never questioned Neandertal mobility.

One last point. This study challenges the notion that modern Homo sapiens technology gave them an evolutionary upper hand — a better tool set of narrow blades helped modern humans outcompete Neandertals in hunting of big game, and thus survived more effectively. Though Neandertals had different tools, this analysis showed that their tools didn’t have much of a difference in cutting effectiveness and were just as costly as Upper Paleolithic blades. While I haven’t had a chance to read the original paper — it isn’t online yet — I wonder if the authors discuss the differences in the applications of blades versus flakes? Both may have been just as effective in cutting surface but blades functioned as more diverse compound tools, i.e. they could be interchanged between harpoons and spears, knives and scrapers. A compound tool’s advantage over less versatile Mousterian tools, is that they can be repaired — costing the toolmaker and culture less resources spent in fashioning new tools.

And if you want to see the data that Eren and team produced, you know to do your own number crunching, they’ve made it available on Think Computer corp’s website.