Neanderthals, an early species of man, were skilled toolmakers who roamed the planet over 500,000 years ago.
Neanderthals, an early species of man, were skilled toolmakers who roamed the planet over 500,000 years ago. Natural History Museum

Neanderthals were just as clever as modern humans, a new study conducted by two researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands has found.

The paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, dismisses previous claims suggesting that the demise of the Neanderthal happened because they were inferior to their successors in various skills such as hunting, communicating, and adapting to different environments.

"The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there," said researcher Dr Paola Villa. "What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true."

Villa and co-author Wil Roebroeks analysed several common explanations for Neanderthal extinction that rely largely on the notion that Neanderthals were inferior to anatomically modern humans.

These explanations include the hypotheses that Neanderthals did not use complex, symbolic communication; that they were less efficient hunters with inferior weapons; and that they had a bad diet.

According to Roebroeks, the available evidence does not support the claim that Neanderthals were less advanced.

"The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up," he said.

Villa and Roebroeks said that the past misrepresentation of Neanderthals' cognitive ability may be linked to the tendency of researchers to compare Neanderthals, who lived in the Middle Paleolithic, to modern humans living during the more recent Upper Paleolithic era, characterised by significant progressions in technology.

"Researchers were comparing Neanderthals not to their contemporaries on other continents but to their successors," Villa said. "It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and conclude that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari."

Concluding, the study said that the real reasons for the demise of the Neanderthals' can be found in recent analyses of the Neanderthal genome. Studies show modern humans and Neanderthals likely interbred and the resulting male children had reduced fertility.

Recent research also suggests that Neanderthals lived in small groups and they were therefore inevitably assimilated by the increasing numbers of modern immigrants.

"Stereotypes help people to order their world, but the stereotype of the primitive Neanderthal is now gradually eroding, at least in scientific circles," said Roebroecks.