“Intellectually Inferior” Humans Drove Neanderthals to Extinction

By: May Man Published: Jul 02, 2024

“Who the hell was this Neanderthal?” This is the intriguing question posed by archaeologist Ludovic Slimak in his book, “The Naked Neanderthal.”

Neanderthals were our closest relatives, but they vanished millennia ago. Today, there are 8.1 billion humans and no Neanderthals.

Human Intelligence Questioned

“Why are they no longer here?” is a persistent question researchers ponder, says University of Victoria archaeologist April Nowell. Previously, Neanderthals were thought to be less intelligent than humans.

Reconstruction of the face of a male Neanderthal/Close-up photograph of an elderly man

Source: Wikipedia/Freepik

However, Slimak argues that ancient Homo sapiens were “probably no match for Neanderthal populations and was in all likelihood intellectually inferior,” particularly in terms of creativity.

Intellectual Inferiority

Many scientists believe a combination of factors, such as climate change and low fertility rates, led to the extinction of Neanderthals.

Illustration of early Homo sapiens traveling through snowy mountains

Source: Depositphotos

Slimak, however, attributes their demise to early humans despite their intellectual inferiority. He suggests that without human interference, Neanderthals might still exist.

Common Ancestor

Humans and Neanderthals shared a common ancestor dating back 550,000 to 750,000 years.

Skull of a Homo sapien and a Neanderthal side by side

Source: Wikipedia

Neanderthals, with their muscular build, prominent brow, and less pronounced chin, spread into northwestern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southern Siberia long before Homo sapiens.

Brought to Extinction

They thrived in these regions for hundreds of thousands of years until their extinction around 40,000 years ago.

A neanderthal skull on display in the Bonn Museum in Germany, 1972

Source: Ernst Hass/Getty Images

Slimak’s hypothesis is based on his 2008 discovery in a Southern France cave.

Human-Neanderthal Encounter

By dating soot from various artifacts, he determined that humans and Neanderthals coexisted there around 54,000 years ago, marking the first evidence of a human-Neanderthal encounter.

A Neanderthal sitting by some rocks holding an animal it has caught.

Source: Neanderthal-Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Although there is no direct evidence of conflict, Slimak suggests humans eventually replaced Neanderthals, as evidenced by humans being the final occupants of the cave around 44,000 years ago.


Fierce Competition

Nowell acknowledges that while direct competition or conflict might explain humans taking over Slimak’s studied site, “it may not be the case everywhere.”

A Was Figure of a Neanderthal at the One Million Years of the Human Story at the Natural History Museum

Source: Paul Hudson/Flickr

Slimak notes that Neanderthals, though “excellent artisans” with remarkable creativity, could not compete with humans’ regimented weapon production, leading to their extinction. “Modern humans who colonized Europe produced weapons that were both more numerous and more effective,” he wrote.


More Research Needed

Although archaeologists haven’t found much direct evidence of Neanderthals and humans living together, genetic studies reveal that the two species interbred multiple times over thousands of years.

A painting depicting Neanderthals around a campfire, with some in the distance, and animals and mountains in the background.

Source: 12019/Pixabay

However, genetic data does not reveal much about the nature of their interactions. More archaeological evidence, like Slimak’s cave, is needed.


Complex Timeline

Linking the timeline of humans’ first appearance and Neanderthals’ last presence in Europe is challenging due to the limitations of radiocarbon dating, which is most accurate up to around 50,000 years ago.

An artistic model of a Neanderthal elderly man in a museum.

Source: Jakub Hałun/Wikimedia Commons

This coincides with the Neanderthals’ disappearance, complicating precise dating.


Evidence of Co-existence

In regions like France and Spain, evidence suggests humans replaced Neanderthals, but it’s unclear if they cohabited for 1,000 or 5,000 years.

An artistic model of an old Neanderthal woman in a museum.

Source: Fährtenleser/Wikimedia Commons

If they coexisted for several millennia, their interactions were likely more complex than a simple conquest.


Challenging Times

Nowell points out that many archaeologists consider Homo sapiens more creative, as they adapted to new environments, which could have led to conflict.

Depiction of a Neanderthal in a European museum

Source: Wikimedia

However, human colonization is not the sole reason for Neanderthals’ extinction. Neanderthals were already facing population decline and genetic issues when humans arrived, with climate change adding to their challenges.


Disappearance of Neanderthals

Slimak, however, emphasizes the impact of humans, stating, “We can argue endlessly about dates, climate, or this or that other factor, but we have to accept that we are faced with a clear and radical replacement of population.”

A statue of a Neanderthal. He is slightly hunched over and has long hair and some material tied around his waist.

Source: Abraham/Wikimedia Commons

He concludes that Neanderthals disappeared from the archaeological record with the arrival of Homo sapiens.