Neanderthal Brain Vs. Human Brain: The Differences
What is the difference between a neanderthal brain and a human brain? Humans are one of the most successful species on the planet. Humans began as hunters and gatherers but since have created agriculture, civilization, culture, language, architecture, writing systems, social norms, governments, religion, organized militaries. Further still, they have been able to produce great technological innovations such as cars, planes, computers, the internet, advanced medical treatments to fight off diseases that once ravaged human populations, and rockets that have allowed humans to leave planet Earth.
This is an impressive feat that no other species has ever done or ever been able to consider. In everyday life, many humans take the world they live in for granted, along with their ability to think and speak, and perform tasks such as math homework, reading a billboard off the highway, and driving a car.
Many do not take a moment to inquire how we came to live in a world filled with our own innovations, or how our capabilities came to be in the first place. We are, in fact, still primates despite our great differences with other extant primates. Nevertheless, we can see where certain cognitive aspects of Homo sapiens may have originated from by studying primates such as chimpanzees or gorillas who are able to memorize a number of sign language signs in order to communicate what they want or feel.
We would be able to better study the origins of our cognitive abilities if only our many ancestors of the genus Homo were still in existence. However, advancements in technology and research methods have allowed us to peer deeper into the cognitive abilities of one of our closest extinct ancestors: Homo neanderthalensis, or better known simply as the Neanderthals.
Understanding the Neanderthal Brain
When many people think of Neanderthals, the image of an intellectually lacking caveman-type of figure bashing rocks together often comes to mind. With this image, it can be hard to see how Neanderthals could possibly have such a close relation to anatomically modern humans. This image of the Neanderthals, however, is not correct.
In reality, while Neanderthals still had many differences with modern humans, they also had several cognitive similarities which most people are unaware of, and these similarities can provide great insight into how modern humans developed their advanced cognitive abilities and why they survived while the Neanderthals went extinct.
It was commonly thought that the advanced cognitive capabilities of anatomically modern humans were due to the slow and extended process of brain growth which persisted through a lengthy maturation period in anatomically modern humans. However, it is now believed that it is instead due to the rapid growth rates during early development rather than growth over time (Ponce De Leon, M. S., et al. 2008). Interestingly, Neanderthal brains were slightly larger in size than those of anatomically modern humans, despite having very similar growth rates.
An explanation for this may be because Neanderthals, in general, were larger in body size compared to the more gracile Homo sapiens, and the pelvic outlet in female Neanderthals was also larger which allowed Neanderthal neonates to have larger cranial sizes (Ponce De Leon et al. 2008). However, it is not necessarily the size of the brain which determines advanced cognitive abilities as the structure of the brain itself and the volume of certain areas of the brain are also very important factors.
Anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals actually have several similarities in brain morphology. For example, the degree of gyrification and asymmetry and non-allometric widening of the frontal lobes are very similar (Pearce, Stringer & Dunbar 2013). In contrast, a significant difference between the two taxa is that Neanderthals had much larger visual cortices compared to anatomically modern humans and may have helped with hunting and gathering, while other areas in the brain in modern humans tended to be larger or morphologically different.
It is believed that Neanderthals had several characteristics that took after Homo heidelbergensis, the last common ancestor between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, such as similar robust body sizes and brain morphology, while Homo sapiens evolved to become smaller in size along with the investment of more advanced cognitive functions, which allowed modern humans to live in large and complex social groups and helped to solve ecological problems and adapt to changing environments (Pearce, Stringer & Dunbar 2013).
In addition, because Neanderthal brains were more visually focused, their communities could not be as large or complex, their ability to innovate may have been limited, and they may have been vulnerable to demographic oscillation which could have led to population extinction.
Modern humans may take many of their advanced cognitive abilities for granted, but among those abilities, memory does not usually come to mind. Episodic memory is unique to Homo sapiens and allows us to remember past experiences and events which are connected to a time and place, and by recognizing and understanding this aspect, we are able to attempt to change certain events in order to gain a favored future outcome (Petru 2017).
What to Know
Episodic memory is not found in all animals and is not essential for functioning or learning about the world and is actually a relatively recent trait in Homo sapiens and only emerged around the late Paleolithic when symbolic objects such as grave goods, art, and ornaments start to appear in the archaeological record.
It is believed that episodic memory also allowed modern humans to discuss shared experiences and events with each other, therefore leading to the development of complex social groups and even language. Of course, the anatomy of the vocal cords and the presence of the FOXP2 gene are extremely important for the development of language as well, and it is believed that Neanderthals had vocal cords similar in morphology to modern humans, but because they seemed to lack the FOXP2 gene and episodic memory based on a lack of symbolic objects found in the archaeological record, they were not able to acquire language as modern humans did, and also were unable to form as complex social groups (Petru 2017).
Still, Neanderthals were intelligent and skillful, especially in the creation of stone tools and arrowheads, and were experienced in the hunting of large animals. Since most of the activities of Neanderthals tended to be purely focused on survival, it is debated if Neanderthals were capable of creating art. Cave paintings and carvings as well as shells covered with traces of ochre have been dated to around the period where Neanderthals may have been able to create such things, but it is not certain if Neanderthals or modern humans created them (Petru 2017).
The greater range of cognitive abilities in anatomically modern humans may not have been an entirely beneficial thing. With advanced genetic technology, scientists have been able to analyze which genes are switched on in anatomically modern humans and not in Neanderthals, with these particular genes having important implications for the functions of the brain (Reardon 2013).
Research has discovered that when the species Homo sapiens branched off from Homo neanderthalensis and Denisovans, they evolved new types of genes which gave them higher cognitive capabilities but also could cause a variety of mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. When a Denisovan genome was sequenced in 2012, the results showed that modern humans have eight genes not shared with Neanderthals or Denisovans which allow neurons to stretch farther across the brain in order to connect with each other.
Detailing the Neanderthal Brain
This made the brain more complex and made modern humans capable of communication and social interaction, which are aspects evolution favored (Reardon 2013). While not much is solidly known about what cognitive abilities Neanderthals had, findings show that Neanderthal brains were indeed wired differently than those of modern humans.
While Neanderthals may have not been capable of language or other aspects that are natural to modern humans, as mentioned previously, Neanderthals had brains that emphasized visuomotor coordination, and this can be seen through their material culture. Most material culture of the Neanderthals is in the form of stone or flint tools made through the process of knapping which requires high eye and hand coordination and an understanding of geometry and the shape the stone will assume after knapping.
The Neanderthals utilized the Levallois flaking system, which alone required skill in the creation of normal-sized stone tools, but extremely small microlevallois technology was discovered which required even more dexterous knapping techniques (Rios-Garaizar 2015). Another example of the Neanderthals’ great visuomotor capabilities was their skill in distance hunting since it involves calculating how far away the prey is from the hunter and accurately aiming.
One of the largest questions surrounding the Neanderthal brain is whether they it capable of creating art. In El Castillo cave in Spain, there are paintings estimated to have been created around 40,800 years ago, which was around the time anatomically modern humans first migrated into western Europe (Appenzeller 2013).
A Closer Look
These paintings consist of several red circles, and recent studies suggest that they might be thousands of years older than previously believed, making them too old for modern humans to have created them. If Neanderthals created the paintings in El Castillo cave, as simple as they are, entirely new views of what Neanderthals were capable of would emerge, and it would mean that Neanderthals were more similar to modern humans than previously thought.
An argument against the belief that the Neanderthal brain was not capable of symbolic thinking and expression is that Neanderthals did not need to create jewelry, figurines, or other artifacts in order to understand symbolism. For instance, it is believed that Neanderthals buried their dead, which not only was a symbolic process, but also a spiritual process (Appenzeller 2013).
These actions insinuate Neanderthals may have had the ability to think abstractly and think about the future and plan accordingly, in which case would have made them exceptionally similar to modern humans. In fact, some scientists argue that Neanderthals were so similar to modern humans that they should not even be considered a species separate from modern humans.
This is not necessarily a popular opinion, however, since there is still a plethora of differences both anatomically, cognitively, and genetically between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans that make sense to classify them as two separate and distinct species.
Studying and ultimately understanding Neanderthals is essential in order to understand ourselves as modern humans as well as our origins. From the brains of Neanderthals and what they were capable of cognitively, we might have a better understanding of how certain aspects developed in modern humans, such as language, art, culture, religion, and civilization.
Neanderthals clearly were not the dull, clumsy brutes that many make them out to be, and, in fact, were an intelligent and skillful species that were able to persist for hundreds of thousands of years. While the Neanderthal brain and modern humans were different in a variety of ways, they also had many similarities. Even though modern humans had the characteristics that gave them the evolutionary advantage and allowed them to survive, the part of Neanderthals in the hominin evolutionary tree was essential to our development and our identity as humans in the modern world.
Appenzeller, T. (2013). Neanderthal culture: Old masters. Nature, 497(7449), 302-304. doi:10.1038/497302a. Accessed June 19, 2018, from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=6ade9c44-bbc7-4d9b-a4d0-5edd5a73c1f0%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVpZCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmU%3d#AN=87656368&db=aph.
Pearce, E., Stringer, C., & Dunbar, R. M. (2013). New insights into differences in brain organization between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. Proceedings Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280(1758), 1. doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.0168. Accessed June 19, 2018, from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=9384ae80-57b8-463f-b4e4-4761e6a33958%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVpZCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmU%3d#AN=103149353&db=aph.
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Reardon, S. (2013). Inside the brain of a Neanderthal. New Scientist, (2926), 8. Retrieved June 12, 2018, from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=7&sid=a35294b5-a68e-4692-97d9-07da5bee2c2b%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVpZCZzaXRlPWVkcy1saXZl#AN=edsgcl.343583793&db=edsgao
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