Neanderthals were not as stupid as they have been portrayed, according to a study showing their stone tools were just as good as those made by the early ancestors of modern humans, Homo sapiens.
Scientists who spent years learning how to make replicas of the stone instruments used by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have found the Neanderthal tools were just as efficient as anything made by Stone Age man.
And researchers believe that the demise of the Neanderthals – which has often been explained by the supposed inferiority of their technology – could not have come about solely as a result of their stone tools being worse than those of their rivals.
"Our research disputes a major pillar holding up the long-held assumption that Homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthals. It is time for archaeologists to start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct," said Metin Eren, a graduate student at Exeter University.
"Technologically speaking, there is no clear advantage of one tool over the other. When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of 'stupid' or 'less advanced' but more in terms of 'different'."
Neanderthal man lived in Europe for about 300,000 years, surviving a number of ice ages before disappearing completely about 25,000 years ago, about 10,000 years after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.
Why the Neanderthals disappeared has been an enduring mystery but studies on DNA extracted from ancient bones suggest they died out without interbreeding with the new arrivals to Europe. It is likely that the two species of humans competed against each other for limited resources in the same habitat, with Homo sapiens being the victor.
However, the study on the stone tools used by both species suggests that the competition was not as one-sided as some anthropologists had believed. The Neanderthal flint tools were broader and thicker than the somewhat smaller and finer-bladed tools of Homo sapiens but they have turned out to be no less efficient, Mr Eren said.
The scientists, from Exeter University, the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas State University and the Think Computer Corporation, analysed museum specimens of stone tools and learnt how to make exact replicas by knocking flakes off flint stone.
"After many years of learning how to do it, we did a number of analyses of efficiency and found that Neanderthal tools are no less efficient, and indeed in some respects were more efficient than the tools of Homo sapiens," Mr Eren said. "It was only by spending three years in the lab learning how to make these tools that we were able to finally replicate them accurately enough to come up with our findings."
The study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, measured how long it took to make the tool by the process of flint knapping, how much waste was produced in making it, the sharpness of its cutting edge and for how long it lasted.
One problem still remains – why did Homo sapiens switch from the type of tool technology used by the Neanderthals to something that was different but no more efficient?
Mr Eren said that the switch to a more streamlined technology during the time that Homo sapiens began colonising Europe may have played a role of social cohesion by giving the tool makers a shared identity.
"Colonising a continent isn't easy. Colonising a continent during the Ice Age is even harder. So, for early Homo sapiens colonising Ice Age Europe, a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded," Mr Eren explained.
"Thus, during hard times these larger social networks might act like a type of life insurance, ensuring exchange and trade among members of the same team," he said.