The recent paper Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex by Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks reviews the archaeological literature and suggests that the evidence that the Neanderthals died out because they were in some way inferior to modern humans is weak. I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert in the assessment of the archaeology but I suspect there will be quite a lot of criticism from people who are sure we are superior.
The paper is useful in that it suggests that we should not be in a hurry to jump to conclusions as to why the Neanderthals vanished from the scene, leaving only a small percentage of genes in modern Europeans. I was interested that they didn’t include in the possible reasons for the Neanderthal decline any mention of the effect on local populations of the spread of Europeans over the last 500 or so years. Part of the effect was cultural (the European explorers had guns) but part was the spread of disease – and there could well have been epidemics in the past when two closely related groups met.
In terms of the evolution of the brain, the paper is a useful reminder that the capabilities of the Neanderthal brain may have been very similar to our own – but it also highlights the problem of the evolution of language, and whether the Neanderthals had language – because if so this could push back the origins some 3-400,000 years at least.
The model I am developing suggests that language is almost entirely cultural and the key is the way information is passed between generations. It predicts various tipping points and there is one possibly relevant difference between Neanderthals and modern humans – Neanderthal children reached maturity quicker.
When the first effective protolanguage developed, and allowed information to be passed more rapidly between generations there are two directions a species might evolve. One is to transfer the same amount of information, without increasing the capacity of the brain – allowing a shorter childhood and an increase in the number of offspring. The other is to increase the size of the brain allowing more useful culture to be passed in the same childhood period – and increasing the chances of children surviving. This is only a passing thought – but it could be that when language started the Neanderthal took the “more children” route while the modern humans took the more information is better route.