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Neuroscience: Neanderthals in mind

Nature volume 479, pages 294295 (17 November 2011) | Download Citation

Clive Gamble relishes the inside story on the cognitive abilities of our fossil relatives.

How To Think Like a Neandertal

Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge. Oxford University Press: 2011. 224 pp. £16.99, $24.99 9780199742820

Wondering what went on in the heads of Neanderthals has rarely produced positive thoughts. H. G. Wells set the bar low in his short story The Grisly Folk in 1921, writing: “We cannot conceive in our different minds the strange ideas that chased one another through those queerly shaped brains.” Wells's hatchet job was effective. Other authors have offered sympathetic alternatives, such as Isaac Asimov's 1958 short story The Ugly Little Boy. But the idea of a 'thinking Neanderthal' has become an evolutionary oxymoron on a par with 'military intelligence' and 'airline food'.

Yet cognition certainly took place in the Neanderthal brain — the largest in human evolution, housed in a long, distinctively shaped skull. In How to Think Like a Neandertal, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge provide one of the most rounded portraits yet of a fossil human. The book covers familiar areas — diet, symbolism and language — but also includes innovative assessments of Neanderthals' capacity to tell jokes, and even speculations on what they might have dreamed about. The authors use the Neanderthals as a means of discussing the evolutionary reasons for such cognitive abilities as humour and deception.

Neanderthals were wary xenophobes who had considerable empathy and liked slapstick humour. Image: RECONSTRUCTION: KENNIS & KENNIS/PHOTO: J. MCNALLY

We have learned much about Neanderthals in the past 150 years. They were powerfully built and top carnivores. Their stone tools are found across Eurasia. We know from their genome sequence that the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and ourselves lived some half a million years ago. They became extinct in southern Spain as recently as 30,000 years ago.

Yet understanding these remarkable people is hard. There is a veneer of common prejudice about primitives and progress that first has to be stripped away. Then there is the awkward fact that what they made and left behind is unimpressive. Their tools changed little over time and space. They had fire and, on occasion, a way of disposing of their dead that accords with what we understand as burial. But they made no art in the form of painting or carving, just a few perforated and pigmented shells.

Archaeologists look for cultural diversity and innovation when they judge people in the past. Sadly for the Neanderthals, they rubbed shoulders in Europe with modern humans — our direct ancestors — who had the latest technology, charms and ivory beads, and over-ran the continent.

“A Neanderthal's tool effectively became as much a part of their mind as their brain cells.”

If we really want to understand our earliest ancestors, we need to question the model of the mind we use to investigate them, as Wynn and Coolidge have done. What emerges from their book is that modern humans are the biggest obstacle to understanding these people. We are the point of comparison, and because we are so similar to Neanderthals in terms of anatomy, genetics, brain size and, during the Pleistocene epoch, stone technology, the differences become exaggerated. As a result, the Neanderthal 'brand' suffers.

Nevertheless, Wynn and Coolidge show that Neanderthals had a family focus and almost certainly laughed when someone accidentally trod in the fire. They would have recalled that moment among themselves, sharing in the fun through mime and language.

They list nine Neanderthal personality traits. On the negative side, they read the archaeological and fossil evidence as indicating that Neanderthals were xenophobic, resistant to change and dogmatic — direct, but also laconic and unimaginative. The lack of imagination is shown, for instance, in their unchanging tool designs; wariness and xenophobia are indicated by their high mortality rate and interpersonal violence; and their laconic approach is suggested by the fact that they rarely travelled out of their home territory.

On the plus side, the evidence points to Neanderthals as supremely pragmatic, stoic, risk-tolerant when it came to getting food, and both sympathetic and empathetic, caring for disabled individuals in their communities.

Wynn and Coolidge conclude that today, Neanderthals would be commercial fishermen or mechanics, based on their enormous strength and ability to learn the motor procedures needed. Their capacity for empathy might even have made them competent physicians, the authors say, although a lack of mathematical ability means that they would never have been able to graduate from medical school. Neanderthals would also make excellent army grunts, with their high levels of pain tolerance, and would be good tacticians in small combat units. They would never rewrite the tactical manual — although tearing it up, however thick, would not be a problem.

Underpinning this appreciation of Neanderthals are two models of how thinking works: expert and embodied cognition. In expert thinking, working memory is not just a short-term store for verbal information. It is important in the planning and execution of complex tasks such as hunting and making tools, as it retains the information necessary to focus the mind and resist interference.

The hand-held technologies of the Neanderthals lead us to embodied cognition. Neanderthals did not think only with their minds but, like us and other primates, through the senses and emotions of the body as well. The tools they used were, Wynn and Coolidge say, “extensions of perception, and hence extensions of mind”. Studies of artisans today indicate that a Neanderthal wielding a tool would have learned to respond flexibly through that tool, which effectively became as much a part of their mind as their brain cells.

Embodied cognition is a radical departure in the way the early mind is studied, overturning a long tradition of rational approaches to the mind as a problem-solving machine. In that view, Neanderthals, with their limited technology, did not solve much. However, introducing embodied cognition means that we begin to see many similarities in the emotions they must have felt and the way they dealt with others. The evidence remains the same, but the insights fundamentally change what we believe our distant relatives are capable of.

Read this book for the challenge it poses to the limits of what we can know about our fossil relatives. Delve into its discussion of theory of mind and the ability of humans other than ourselves to think imaginatively about one another's intentions. You will find yourself frequently exclaiming, 'How can they say that?' But I think you will agree that our growing understanding of cognition in deep time could make 'modern human' the real oxymoron.

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  1. Clive Gamble is a professor of archaeology at the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins, University of Southampton, Southampton S017 1BJ, UK. He is co-editor of Neanderthals Among Mammoths (with W. A. Boismier and F. Coward).

    • Clive Gamble


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Correspondence to Clive Gamble.

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