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Neanderthals: Are They Us, or Are We Them (or Both)? Overcoming the Icons of Evolution

Who were the Neanderthals? Were they ape-like primitives with low intelligence, or were they more like us–perhaps nearly identical to modern humans in both body and mind? Biology textbooks often portray Neanderthals as unintelligent versions of modern humans. For example, this graphic from Biology: The Dynamics of Life (pg. 483, 2000 ed.) portrays Neanderthals as stooped primitives struggling kill a giant bear using clubs, spears, and incompetently, a burning stick:


But according to a recent article in the Washington Post, Neanderthals may have been virtually indistinguishable from modern humans in terms of both their appearance and intelligence. A lead author on the study declared that “we would understand both to be human. There’s good reason to think that they did as well.” The article reports that this recent study “concluded that a significant number [of skeletons] have attributes associated with both Neanderthals and the modern humans who replaced them.”

Paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus also tries to dispel the myth that Neanderthals were unintelligent brutes: “Although Neanderthals live in the public imagination as hulking and slow-witted ‘Alley Oops,’ Trinkaus and others say there is no reason to believe they were any less intelligent than the newly arrived ‘modern humans.’ Neanderthals were stockier and had larger brows, sharper teeth and more jutting jaws, but their brain capacity appears to have been no different than that of the newcomers.”

In fact, Neanderthals had an average brain size which was slightly larger than that of modern humans. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeing Neanderthals as a primitive species–a popular icon of evolution–but rather as a sub-race of our own species.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.