On Neandertal Stone Tools & Estimations Of Their Intelligence

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.

28 thoughts on “On Neandertal Stone Tools & Estimations Of Their Intelligence

  1. The authors next measured circumference of these stone tools using a method developed by Adobe and Think Computer corporations.

    I’m not sure that precise measurements of cutting edge length/circumference is a good measure of cutting efficiency. Non-convex corners on the edge are likely to stay away from the ‘cut’ and not contribute. Taking the perimeter of the smallest convex enclosing polygon might be a better idea.

    Then again, this does not account for the effects of serrating an edge, which makes it far more effecient at cutting, at the cost of durability. But my point about perimeter being a poor measure of cutting efficiency stands. Perhaps an experimental approach consisting of making a whole bunch of cuts on meat/hide, might be a better approach.

  2. Neanderthals Did Not Make Tools

    Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons were both top level predators—> Hunters.

    The Neanderthals hunted first by Smell/then by Sight

    The Cro-Magnon hunted by Sound/Sight

    The Neanderthal’s nose/muzzle is enlarged. The Neanderthal brain case is of the shape and size indicative of development necessary to analyzing and acting on olfactory information. The Neanderthal had a well developed cerebrum and other structures adapted to processing smell.

    The Cro-Magnon brain is of the size and shape indicative of a Sound Hunter. Man has a well developed Cerebral Cortex necessary for analyzing and acting upon Sound sensory input.

    1) Neanderthals did not have language or music. The Neanderthals were not responsive to sound. The organization of the Neanderthal brain did not have the structures necessary to process Sound nor did Neanderthal take such delight in the meanings and patterns of Sound that Man does.

    2) The Neanderthal did not mate with Humans. Neanderthal would have identified potential mates by Smell. A human female would not have aroused a Neanderthal Male and a Neanderthal female had the strength to fend off any unwanted amorous advances by human males. It is unlikely that the Neanderthal recognized Humans either visually or by smell as bearing a resemblance to Neanderthals.

    3) Neanderthals did not bury the dead. Humans, and possibly Neanderthals, cache food, especially in caves and other areas that may be visited by other animals. Man is particularly fond of burying and covering his dinner with rocks or in shallow cairns. Burial takes many forms and the least representative of funerary practices is “caching.”

    4) Neanderthals did not make tools. The Neanderthal, being a specialized smell hunter, would have had less capacity than a Chimpanzee to carry out the complex task of tool making. Neanderthal may have used sticks or stones on a “spur of the moment” basis to strike but the “significant differences” between Man and Neanderthal would preclude the appreciation and ability to recognize and create complex patterns.

    5) Neanderthals did not make or control fire. Neanderthals were cold adapted, having a very thick and heavy fur coat. Man is not cold adapted and must of necessity make and control fire when he is out of his native, tropical range. Where there is fire, there is Man. Neanderthals did not tan hides or wear clothes. Neanderthal was a cold climate animal, not a migrant from the tropics who could only survive by the use of artificial and complex technologies such as shelters, clothes, and fire.

    1. very precise and specific for someone who was not there and never saw an actual neanderthal in action.

    2. It occurs to me that your assumptions of what a Neanderthal could or could not do are not supported by the fossil evidence. Your conclusions are supported only by guesses made by the same camp of people who say parrots only mimic words or the great apes cannot communicate with sign language, but are only mimicking what they see.
      Your very verbose and would lead one to think you are a philosophy type person rather than a hard science type person.
      You should learn that hard facts always trump “logical” thought processes.

    3. Wrong on every count.
      1) Evidence suggests they had both.
      2) Max Plank study suggests up to 5% of modern non-African DNA is from Neanderthals
      3) Shanidar and countless other burials say you are wrong
      4) They made first class tools
      5) They had hearths

  3. Correction:
    Write in Haste, Regret at Leisure
    The above post should read
    “Neanderthals had a well developed Cerebellum” (the original post reads Cerebrum)
    Neanderthals were King of Cerebellum
    Cro-Magnons were King of the Cerebrum
    Thank you

  4. ok, so let me tell you what I know about Neanderthal man, or Homo neanderthalensis…and yes, that is the taxonomy, not H. sapiens neanderthalensis. We were not descended from them, but a common ancestor, most likey Homo heidelbergensis or Homo ergaster.

    1. Neanderthals did indeed have speech, but may not have had music. If you were to look at the larynx and archaeological evidence, you would see that they were quite capable of singing.

    2. There is some evidence that neanderthal’s may have interbred, but nothing solid. there is a find from Gibraltar of a young neanderthal with many sapient traits. There is also the fact that we may have a few genes in common with them associated with red hair.

    3. Neanderthals did indeed bury their dead, but they did so hastily (most of the time). There are finds in Spain that put Neanderthal finds in grave sites with a red ochre, possibly to dye the body in some ritual. This phenomenon is only seen in a very select few sites, like the ones in Amud, Tabun and Spy.

    4. Neanderthals did indeed make tools, they are associated with Mousterian industry of the early and middle Paleolithic.

    5. Neanderthals did indeed make and control fire. You probably got this idea from the film “Quest for Fire,” which is about as accurate of the Pleistocene as the film 10,000 B.C. is. They also indeed wore clothing, usually made out of hides. There are numerous sites which include Levallois, Zafarra, Krapina, etc.

    X, I am sorry to have to correct you like this, but your errors were so grievous that I was compelled to do so.

    1. I believe that most of this information is correct…. although some of it is false. There speech was music and not labeled as “speech”. I felt as though to tell you.


      1. What are you talking about Alli? Their speech was music? You mean that they didn’t speak but communicated in notes and songs? U

        1. And according to new information from site of Divje Babe in Slovenia… It is quite possible that they had know about music. On the site archaeological team found a bone with two hole on upper side and a hole on back site which suggests that it could be used as a flute. Afterward the team has done every possible test to rule out any other way of creating those two upper holes as anything else then by human intervention. The bone “flute” is dated to Mousterien period…

  5. I am writing , as some of you know a novel about a neanderthal hero , and for my story , I read all your comments , and study all finds …old and new , and for the music part , I greatly encourage X , and others to read mr Steven Mithen : “The singing Neanderthals ” … Yes , they had music… and they found a bone with holes like a flute that is 40,ooo years old , and if they had music , so singing along & humming was only but natural , and communication in form of sung words seem only natural too ! ? …No ? … JP

  6. There is no air-tight proof that would suggest that Neanderthals actually made tools, had music or buried their dead. Neanderthals were nothing but APES. They did NOT mate with humans, therefore did not evolve INTO humans.

    The fact that DNA tests have conclusively proven this is yet another blow to the stupid theory of human “evolution”.

    Also, to say that the Neanderthals are cousins to humans is nothing more than wishful thinking and speculation on the part of die-hard evolutionists.

    1. this is so funny. You really need to go have a DNA test done since they have shown that a portion of the European peoples have Neanderthal genes that people like the Chinese or those from Africa do not.

      I would laff my butt off if you found you had Neanderthal genes.

      1. “I would laff my butt off if you found you had Neanderthal genes”.

        I assume he or she is one of those people desperate to put as much distance between humans and all other species as possible. Such people are a danger to our long-term survival, although that probably won’t affect me individually so much.

      2. Actually East Asians, South Asians, American Indians and all other non-African populations have about the same number of Neanderthal genes. The only explanation for this is that humans did not interbreed with European Neanderthals, but with an early human-Neanderthal hybrid in what is now Israel where human and Neanderthal populations overlapped. This probably means humans and Neanderthals could net interbreed to produce fertile offspring, but humans and early human-Neanderthal hybrids could.

  7. Just because a Neanderthal could instinctively smash a rock to get sharp-edged “flakes” does not mean that they DESIGNED tools. Smashing a rock to get sharp “flakes” is not the same as taking a sharp “flake” and DESIGNING an arrowhead spear out of it. Only Mankind did and could do such things.

    Neanderthals could instinctively use things available in their environment just like modern animals such as the beaver can.

    A beaver can instinctively take available debris and make a dam out of it. A bird can use branches to make a nest for its young. This is not the same as having the artistic ability to design an arrowhead out of a rock. One is based on natural “instinct”, while the other is based on “creative reasoning”. Only humans possessed or possess such characteristics as “reason” or “symbolic thought”.

    To suggest that Neanderthals sang songs or could create, understand, or appreciate anything artistic is purely speculative.

    1. Ever try to make a Levallois core and point? If you had, you would know that they were probably smarter than most sapiens.

  8. I am a college student studying the subject of Mousterian tools,
    and in response to Mr. (or Ms.) J.
    The tools were not meant to be artistic, they were made for survival. True, it is unclear on whether it was the Neandertals or the Homo sapiens who were the tool makers, maybe they learned from each other and both could have fashioned tools (there are a lot of variations of mousterian tools, I’ve learned) but think of this: The industry disappeared with the passing of the Neandertals.

    1. My theory for the difference between human and Neanderthal tools is that human tools were made long and thin not to be more functional or more efficient, but rather to be more portable – kind of like mobile phones to the Neanderthal’s land line phones – not necessarily more functional but certainly much lighter.

      The reason? Simple – humans were nomadic following migrating herds, whereas Neanderthals lived and stayed put at fixed sites in valleys where they could ambush migrating herds. Being nomadic means that you need to carry additional flint or flint blades with you to cover for blade breakages, but you don’t want to carry excessive weight. This means humans would adopt a technology that would produce the lightest blades compromising on functionality a little if necessary, whereas Neanderthals would aim to produce the most functional blades regardless of weight.

  9. I have found MANY rocks that I know are NOT chipped indian artifacts but everything points to them being blades or such. My friends make fun of me and say that I must be smoking crack and tweaking to think that my rick collectiong box is full of artifacts.

    Even though this might have been the case years ago, I do NOT do drugs of any type. I am almost 67 years old and stay NON U.I. of any drug or alcohol. I have found quite a few rocks that are very similiar-that is shapped the same–fluted the same yet not chipped and some not flint or chert.

    I always tell my friends that the first point was
    not the product of a degreed engineer that decided to build a very symetrical, balanced, thin, chipped point. He simply (most likely) said, “pointed rock on stick be better than pointed stick!” Then from that thought progressed in the art of making points to that which we now know as INDIAN ARROWHEADS.

    What do you think?

  10. As far as I can see there is no single piece of evidence that could refute the following hypothesis (but lots of pointers in favor of it):

    Neanderthals were more capable and more intelligent on average than their contemporary and modern homo sapiens. The reason they died out is simply due to unequal population numbers over a long time span – with the less intelligent humans possibly breeding more quickly and being able to rely on a virtually endless supply of new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa.

    1. Neanderthals were not the stupid brutes that the Victorians imagined they were. However they were very different from humans in a number of ways, and these probably contributed to their eventual demise.

      1) Studies of muscle attachments show Neanderthals were about twice as strong as humans, and injury patterns show that they killed large animals with thrusting spears in close in hand to hand engagements. Neanderthals are built for ambush hunting from fixed sites.

      Studies of humans show that far from being nature’s wimps in terms physical ability as is usually presumed, in one aspect – endurance running, humans can beat all other animals hands down. When it comes to running down animals over a distance of 5 to 25 miles, humans can best all other animals except the horse family and the dog family. Humans can also beat horses and dogs at any distance over 5 miles in hot weather like they would encounter in their native Africa. Humans are built for following migrating herds and hunting by running animals down. Studies have shown that early humans used projectile weapons including spear throwers to kill at a distance rather than getting close in.

      The two different lifestyles would have given humans and Neanderthals different advantages and disadvantages in different environments. However the change from forest to steppe would definitely favoured humans.

      2) It isn’t true to say Neanderthals were more intelligent than humans, although Neanderthals certainly weren’t stupid brutes. The fact is that we simply don’t know. We know Neanderthals had marginally larger brains than modern humans, but humans displayed a far more complex culture and social behaviour, including the making of ornaments, works of art etc. – traits which are distinctly human.

      There is one major developmental difference between humans and Neanderthals which has been proven scientifically by examining teeth for daily growth ring patterns. Neanderthals reached adulthood at eight years old, and dis not go through a teenage phase – like chimpanzees, while humans reach reproductive age at 12-14 years and are not fully grown until 16-18 years. Human brain development is unusually prolonged, and isn’t complete until 18-20 years or more than three times the time it takes Neanderthals to develop fully. What this slow development allows is for the human brain is being rewired according to environmental experiences. In particular, a human child has an incredible and innate ability to assimilate language at a phenomenal rate – something adults cannot later match. The language learning ability is the ability to recognise patterns and associations in this case in speech. However it is paralleled in other forms of symbolic recognition – writing, music, visual representations in the form of art work etc. which are all particular characteristic of humans. I suspect that like human adults who find it difficult to match the language learning abilities of children, Neanderthals would have found it difficult to match humans in the ability to learn language and abstract symbolic representations despite their slightly larger brains. Put simply, humans can more efficiently use their brain cells for abstract concepts, because they leave brain development late, and so can hardwire their brains to match specific languages and symbolic representations.

      This would have made Neanderthals culturally more simple, and less able to pass on complicated information from one generation to another – for example explaining how to find a migration route hundreds of miles long to somebody who has never seen it before, or recounting far flung relatives and explaining which of these owe you favours, or proving you are who you are to relatives who owe you a favour by recounting old childhood memories only you would know.

      3) Recent evidence has supported the “swamped 10 to 1 by immigrants” theory as the reason for the extinction of the Neanderthals. The question is how humans were able to exist in larger numbers in Europe when the Neanderthals were better adapted physically to Europe, and would have been able to breed faster because they reached adulthood at only eight years old.

      There is only one answer to this question, and that is that humans must have been able to exploit Europe more intensively than Neanderthals in order for the area to be able to support an order of magnitude more humans than Neanderthals. This is probably due to humans being able to exploit far more varied food resources including small animals, plants, steppe animals, fish etc. and being able to migrate long distances to exploit meagre resources over a wider area.

  11. @ X

    I don’t know where to start… Reads like one of these creationist types that have a fit thinking there might have been other humans around. What’s truly scary is how many people believe this stuff.

    Smell hunters? Much more likely sight hunters. They have the largest eyes of any hominid and the largest brain area for processing vision too.

    Fire? Yes they had it and could make it. The evidence for this is unassailable.

    Buried their dead? Check and cared for their living too. One old Neandertal lost an arm many years before he died. He also lost most of his teeth(unusually as most ancient humans have better teeth than modern people without dentists). The loss of teeth meant someone else prepared, maybe pre chewed his food for him. He was clearly valued/loved and when he died he was buried. Go even further back to the time of Homo Erectus and even more “apelike” human. There is a skeleton of a woman who died of vitamin A overdose(probably ate a predator liver). She took up to a month to die, during which she would not have been able to travel or even move much because of terrible pain and someone looked after her too.

    Oh yes and we also made the beast with two backs with each other and did it often enough to leave DNA traces. Non African DNA shows these traces. We also got jiggy with ancient Asian peoples too.

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