Are Humans Better than Neanderthals?

Nova: Becoming HumanI just watched the Nova series Becoming Human. I love these kinds of programs, but increasingly, they annoy me. Again, it is over the issue of the Neanderthals. Somehow, when talking about most species, we have no problem being objective. But when it comes to the one species that we are closest to, we can’t help but make comparisons. Watching these documentaries is like listening to 19th century whites compare themselves to Africans.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t know if the Neanderthals were stupider, poorer communicators, or lacking in creativity compared to humans. The point is that neither do any of these scientists and documentary makers. But just like bigots everywhere, they cherry pick data to make the case that humans are superior and Neanderthals inferior.

This particular documentary talks about spears incessantly. It goes on and on about how the Neanderthals never made throwing spears. Of course, humans only started to make throwing spears around the time that Neanderthals went extinct. What’s more, there is no evidence that humans would have behaved any differently had their range been limited to the same place as the Neanderthals. The truth is that the Neanderthals were extremely well adapted for where they lived.

The biggest problem with all this human self-congratulations is the fact that most humans did die off when times got bad. Our population got whittled down to less than a thousand people. This small group seemed to figure out that they could eat sea food and that is what saved them. That’s cool, but it’s also mostly dumb luck. It is most certainly not the case—as is claimed in the documentary—that humans learned to predict the lunar cycle and thus were able to eat shellfish. You don’t need to understand the moon at all to know there are two low tides per day separated by roughly 12 hours.

I hate to go on and on about this, but I’m an out-group kind of guy. I don’t dig on feeling superior just because I’m a member of one group. What’s more, the Neanderthals were a really cool species who should be celebrated for their own accomplishments rather than relegated to the “Why humans rock!” game. If humans manage to survive another 200,000 years and thus outlast the Neanderthals, then I might accept that humans really are the great species we claim to be. Wake me up when that happens.


Here is Part 3 that commits this sin:

4 thoughts on “Are Humans Better than Neanderthals?

  1. I really need to stop using the N-word as shorthand for right-wing Bronze Age acolytes. I’ll try and do so. Can I Call them Cro-Magnons or Australopithecines?

  2. @JMF – I’m not serious. Just the same, it probably [i]is[/i] a bad idea to compare Republicans to these early humans. After all, Cro-Magnon man was doing his best. Republicans are intentionally avoiding accepting things we know to be true. Early humans didn’t pretend that the sun went around the earth in order to steal from their fellow men. But the Republicans do deny climate science to keep externalities from making oil more expensive and thus provide a huge subsidy to oil producers and car manufacturers. It’s very simple: early human ignorance was authentic; it wasn’t evil. Republican ignorance is fake; and evil.

  3. And now it is believed that Neanderthals didn’t go extinct, in a technical sense. Because their numbers were kind of low, and there was inbreeding between the Neanderthals and Homo sapien sapiens, their species simply combined with the Homo sapien sapiens.

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