The Smart Neanderthal

The Smart Neanderthal

Bird Catching, Cave Art & the Cognitive Revolution

Oxford UP, 2019 more...
References: Gregory et al. (2017)

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The idea that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to Homo sapiens and that this difference explains the extinction of the Neanderthals and the triumph of H. sapiens is prevalent among both archeologists and lay people. Some view H. sapiens as “behaviorally modern humans,” distinct from both Neanderthals and other anatomically modern humans – based on characteristics such as the way they made and used tools, the emergence of ornament and art, and the shifting types of social life. Anthropologist Clive Finlayson challenges those assumptions and contends that perhaps people underestimated the cognitive capacities of the Neanderthals.


Many people still believe Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to “Modern Humans.”

In May 2016, anthropologist Clive Finlayson and his family went to the Gibraltar Museum in Spain to see forensic artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis’s life-sized reconstructions of two Neanderthals discovered in Gorham’s Cave on the island. Their statues were based on the remains of an adult female and a four-year-old boy excavated in the cave in 1848 and 1926. Named Gibraltar 1 and 2, the remains had exhibited little more than the nasal cavities, eye sockets, brow ridges and brain cases characteristic of Neanderthals. But with skin and flesh added by the artists, the reconstructed Neanderthals – who probably weren’t even contemporaries – looked fully human. They were no longer reducible to the anatomical characteristics previously identified by paleoanthropologists.

Researchers traditionally regarded Neanderthals as cognitively inferior to the direct ancestors of contemporary humans. The intellectual inferiority of Neanderthals is central to the broader claim that their ultimate extinction was a consequence of that inferiority and the arrival of...

About the Author

Clive Finlayson is a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived.

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