The Smart Neanderthal | Clive Finlayson

Summary of: The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution
By: Clive Finlayson


Delve into the fascinating world of Neanderthals in Clive Finlayson’s ‘The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution’. This book summary offers insights into Neanderthals’ advanced cognitive abilities, their role in human evolution, and how they contributed to shaping modern human behavior. Explore the rich evidence showing that Neanderthals not only engaged in activities typically associated with ‘modern’ humans but may have been their cognitive equals. Through examining Neanderthals’ relationships with animals, tools, and art, Finlayson challenges long-standing assumptions about their inferiority and invites readers to re-examine the false division between Neanderthals and modern humans.

Reconstructing the Neanderthal

In the book ‘Exoplanets,’ the author explores past archaeologists’ perceptions of Neanderthals as being cognitively inferior to modern humans. Researchers cited the anatomical and behavioral dissimilarities between both species to back their claim. In recent times, the Gibraltar Museum in Spain made life-sized reconstructions of two Neanderthal remains that added skin, flesh, and features to the existing anatomical characteristics identified by archaeologists. The reconstructed remains are no longer the brutish, apelike creatures of past times but look fully human, which questions the previous assumption surrounding the intellectual inferiority of Neanderthals. Experts have debated if the term ‘”behaviorally modern” determines superiority, especially since several discoveries made during the course of archaeological research have challenged prior assumptions. Despite all this, the Neanderthal remains remain a vital source of knowledge regarding human evolution.

Rethinking the Neanderthal-Modern Human Divide

The idea that modern humans are superior to Neanderthals due to a “human revolution” exclusive to modern humans is being contested. While there were changes in social and economic life, use of technology, and creation of art during the Upper Paleolithic, some specialists dispute the timeline and argue that the “modern package” appeared in stages. This leads to two paradoxes: the “Sapient Paradox” and the “Neanderthal Paradox.” The answer to both may be that the division between Neanderthals and modern humans is ill-founded, and that scientists underestimated the capacities of Neanderthals. The clear-cut boundary is breaking down.

Rethinking Neanderthals

Neanderthals weren’t just eating tortoises and mollusks; they were also hunting fast-moving prey. The distinction between modern humans and Neanderthals isn’t as clear as previously thought. The widespread belief that Neanderthals were inferior to modern humans is a shaky claim at best. It’s impossible to understand archaic humans without studying their relationship with animals.

Neanderthal’s Adaptation and Demise

The discovery of long-tailed duck remains in Neanderthal sites in Gibraltar sheds light on their cultural behaviors and ability to adapt to changing environments. During the Pleistocene epoch, Arctic sea ducks migrated south, and therefore, Neanderthals could have followed them to new territories. However, they were unable to adapt to the cold, dry climate of the north and east. The woodland ecology and moderate atmosphere was best suited for their hunting habits, but periodic climate change exposed them to new habitats and increased competition for resources. This climate change, rather than the arrival of modern humans, was the primary reason for the ultimate decline of Neanderthals.

Neanderthals – Masters of Adaptation

Neanderthals, the early humans, were highly adaptable to climate change. They displayed remarkable intelligence in using corvids as a source of food and direction to locate fresh meat. They competed with hyenas, wolves, and vultures and were skilled ambush hunters. Neanderthals developed tools that suited their environment, hence little need for change. However, with the advent of climate change, their population dwindled rapidly, leaving no time to adapt. Their advanced cognitive abilities, evident in their hunting techniques, suggests they could have developed new technologies to ambush birds. However, these technologies were perishable and hence not discovered. Neanderthals’ cognitive abilities went hand in hand with their ability to adapt to a changing climate, and it was their inability to adapt to rapid change that led to their extinction.

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