They Were a Lot Like Us: How to Think Like a Neandertal

I have a thing for Neanderthals. The idea that there were these actual Others out there once, living side by side with Homo sapiens, people but not humans… it just floors me with how crazy that is. I guess it should come as no surprise that I am equally peeved by depictions of Neanderthals as brutish and stupid. They had bigger brains than Homo sapiens, by about 10%, after all. Now, while the size of your brain doesn’t correlate to intelligence when you compare individuals, it is a fast and loose rule you can use between species. That said, Neanderthals also had bigger bodies than humans, so that 10% might just be running the physical side of things. Fair enough. The point is, they had big, developed brains. So what were they like? How were they different than humans?

How To Think Like a Neandertal has at its heart an assumption that answers both issues: as they put it, “Neandertals were so similar to us anatomically and genetically that we believe the default position… should be that Neandertals were no different.” I appreciate that a lot; I’ve read a fair share of books that discounted Neanderthal speech on whatever scientific fad was popular at the moment, on the basis of hyoid bones or Broca’s area or FOXP2 or whatever; only to find that new evidence debunked the hyoid bone issues or showed that Neanderthals had a developed Broca’s area and FOXP2. How To Think Like a Neandertal tries not to let assumptions or dogma influence their conclusions. From this “null hypothesis,” Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge use the actual evidence to speculate on how Neanderthals might be different—how they deviate from that default position. From us.

As I alluded to in my “Ecce Orcus” post, Neanderthals fill the role of a “fantasy race” in my roleplaying campaign. I actually think that is the best paradigm to approach the science of hominins like sapiens and neanderthalis. Don’t scoff! I think that the difference between a human and an elf really are comparable to the difference between a Neanderthal and a human. There are some minor morphological differences—elves have pointed ears, Neanderthals have heavy brow ridges—and some actual physical differences—like an elf having greater physical dexterity than a human and a Neanderthal having more muscle mass. All of that is secondary to the small tweaks in how they behave, because those small deviations from how humans tend to behave will compound on each other and result in psychological and cultural differences. Of course, those are the things that are hardest to nail down, hardest to discover, leaving modern archeologists in the position of guessing… but I think How To Think Like a Neandertal makes some good guesses.

If you are the sort who follows Neanderthal research, you’ll have heard many of the pieces of evidence that the book discusses before; what is novel here is that How To Think Like a Neandertal attempts to put those pieces into context. Neanderthals usually have evidence of repeated injuries in their skeletons; the bones stressed, cracked and re-healed, in a pattern most reminiscent of human rodeo cowboys. That, coupled with the chemical analysis of their bones and the remains of animals found associated with them, leads to a conclusion that Neanderthals used thrusting spears to hunt large animals—large as in reindeer, as well as large, as in mammoths and wooly rhinos—in mixed gender groups. Wynn and Coolidge look at the ramifications of that diet, and how those group structures might work. Then to that mix they add the lack of Neanderthal innovation; their spear technology got to “stone tips,” but stopped, even when they were confronting humans using superior weapons, like atlatls. With no social strata, with very few old people—hunting wooly mammoths being a high risk occupation, apparently—Wynn and Coolige posit that Neanderthals had a strong tribal unit but lacked the ability to spin out abstract social structures like humans can.

The real crux of the book is the question of symbolic thinking. Neanderthals seem to have buried their dead—some dispute that, but I’m not convinced by their doubts—but the burials were shallow and don’t show evidence of grave goods or special ceremonies; perhaps Neanderthals experienced grief but lacked the symbolic understanding of ritual that leads humans to create rituals and afterlives for the dead. While we have evidence of human art in the archeological record, Neanderthal art is much more dubious; absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but Coolidge and Wynn are writing a book speculating about Neanderthals, so I can’t fault them for speculating. It looks like Neanderthals probably painted their bodies and there are collections of crystals found in Neanderthal sites, so they may have understood beauty, but—well, consider toys. A human child can pick up a wooden figure of a dog and play with it, pretending it is a dog. Neanderthals don’t have any toys at their sites. Similarly, the authors think Neanderthals could probably laugh at humor—slapstick, clowning—but wouldn’t understand jokes. The juxtaposition of absurdities just wouldn’t click.

In the end, the book comes up with the following personality traits for Neanderthals. Pragmatism, based primarily on the evidence for gastronomic cannibalism. Stoicism and Bravery, based on the danger of their lifestyle and the evidence of persistent injuries. Sympathy, based on the fact that there are Neanderthal skeletons that appear to have lived long after being seriously injured to the point of disability, implying that they were cared for by loved ones. Callousness, however, was in their nature as well; while there are upper body injuries in people who were looked after, there aren’t any lower body injuries that had healed, and the authors suggest that if you couldn’t move with the tribe then you weren’t cared for. Conservatism; as I mentioned in regards to their spears, they didn’t seem compelled to experiment with new tools or innovate new ways of doing things. A “Lack of Autonoetic Thought” is a mouthful for a trait, but this is part of their inability to use symbolic reasoning, to visualize counterfactual situations. Xenophobia ties to “conservatism,” with the smaller group sizes of Neanderthals leading to a hostility towards outsiders—it is worth mentioning that humans of European or Asian descent have 1-4% of their genes from Neanderthals from cross-species breeding, but Neanderthals don’t show any drift in reverse. None of these traits would be out of place in a modern human; in fact, How To Think Like a Neanderthal has a thought experiment about how a Neanderthal baby raised today would get along. They think they would make a good fisherman or soldier, or even a doctor, though negotiating college would be difficult, with the layers of bureaucracy. A Homo sapien in the reverse situation, raised among Neanderthals, would have a much rougher time.

For follow-up reading, I’ve got a few suggestions, many of which Wynn and Coolidge touch on or cite in How To Think Like a Neandertal. Lone Survivors by Chris Stringer is a good look at why Homo sapiens are the species to crawl out of the evolutionary dogpile, and why everyone else went extinct. Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet has a similar premise but he is far more conservative than Wynn and Coolidge; his null hypothesis isn’t “like humans” but “like apes,” if you take my meaning. The Artificial Ape is a book about humanity’s use of symbolic culture and technology by Timothy Taylor, which might just be the thing that let humans thrive where Neanderthals died. Both Derek Bickerton’s Adam’s Tongue and Bastard Tongues are about language; the first about how language might have evolved, from an evolutionary perspective and the second about how language may have evolved, from a linguistic perspective. Catching Fire—no relation to the Hunger Games sequel—by Richard Wrangham is a study on fire, cooking, calories and more; a really great study of the biological realities of being a hominin, of being an ape with fire. Last but certainly not least, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has had a lot to say about the unexamined assumptions of gender relationships in primates; her book The Woman That Never Evolved deals with non-human primates, but Mother Nature and Mothers and Others deal with humans, and are important works, especially when considering the apparent lack of gender specialization in Neanderthals.


Mordicai Knode probably surprises no one by comparing roleplaying games to anthropology, since those two things are his biggest hobbies. His other hobbies include Twitter and Tumblr. He took the photos in this post at the American Natural History Museum.

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