Were Neanderthals as smart as us?

 If Neanderthals were truly as intelligent as us and created art and symbols, this means that our species is a little less special. (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

If Neanderthals were truly as intelligent as us and created art and symbols, this means that our species is a little less special. (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, cave art in Spain was found to be approximately 64,800 years old. Notably, this is thousands of years before modern humans arrived in Europe. What does this mean? A possible explanation given by scientists is that the cave art was created by Neanderthals, an extinct species of human. Archaeologist Francesco d’Errico even suggests that Neanderthals were the ones that taught our species, homo sapiens, to paint in caves. This same study that found that Neanderthals created art also suggests that they created artifacts such as necklaces made from eagle claws and feathers.

This is a fascinating study because it breaks the commonly held stereotype that Neanderthals were bumbling, unintelligent cavemen. In fact, they may have been just as complex as our species. One article by the BBC from 2015 suggests that what set our own human species apart from Neanderthals was that we created symbolic art, which brought different cultures together. If the recent studies concerning Neanderthal cave art are accurate, then this means this distinction is null, and the two human species were much more similar than previously thought. It also means that art itself originated from the Neanderthal species, and not homo sapiens, which is an important discovery.

It is interesting to think about the implications of this finding; there was once a different species of human on Earth that was likely as intelligent as us. What if Neanderthals were still around today? Would they be treated as equals? Or, as our species has been prone to do in the past, would they be segregated, or seen as different or even inferior? How would humanity deal with being composed of not just one, but two species? One species of human alone can barely coexist in peace; if Neanderthals were still around, would there have been more wars? Thinking about this, it may be for the best that only one species of human remains today.

Knowing that Neanderthals may have been  as intelligent as our species also makes the knowledge that they went extinct more sobering. After all, they were very similar to us, yet they have disappeared from the Earth. The 2015 article by the BBC suggests that a main reason modern humans survived and Neanderthals went extinct is because we created symbolic art, but if this wasn’t actually a major distinction between us, then perhaps modern humans lived simply because of random chance. This should humble our species; after all, according to a New York Times article from Feb. 22, when Neanderthals were first being studied in the early 1990s, scientists saw them as “gorilla-like beasts” that couldn’t possibly compete with “slender, brilliant humans”. This original viewpoint of Neanderthals (which is finally being proven wrong) demonstrates how arrogant we are sometimes as a species. We think that we survived this long simply because we were mentally superior, but, in reality, it may have just been due to chance events like adapting to climate change or simply eating different food.

If Neanderthals were truly as intelligent as us and created art and symbols, this means that our species is a little less special. It may not be the most enjoyable realization to have, but it also lets one reflect that Neanderthals live on. We not only carry most of the same genome as them; we also carry on their traditions of art and creating symbolic objects like jewelry. The next time you go to the store to buy a necklace or appreciate art in a museum, just remember that you have Neanderthals to thank for that.


Ben Crnic is a contributor for the The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at benjamin.crnic@uconn.edu.