Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Study highlights differences in brain organisation between Neanderthals and modern humans

Neanderthals focussed on vision at expense of social networking.

A new study has suggested that there were significant differences in the neurological organisation of Neanderthals and modern humans, reflecting physiological differences between the two species. Neanderthals, as has long been known, were larger and more powerfully-built than modern humans. Consequently, it is suggested that they required proportionately more ‘brain power’ to carry out body maintenance ‘housekeeping’ tasks and control functions. In addition, it is suggested that Neanderthals had larger eyes than modern humans, which also used up brain power. They lived at high latitudes in Eurasia, where they experienced lower light levels than people living in the tropics.

Researchers considered the remains of 21 Neanderthals and 38 modern humans dating from between 27 to 200 thousand years ago. They adjusted brain sizes to compensate for the greater Neanderthal body size, and estimated the size of the visual cortex from eye socket measurements. The average size of the Neanderthal eye socket was found to 44 by 36 mm (1.73 by 1.42 in.) compared with 42 by 30 mm (1.65 by 1.18 in.) for the modern humans. This equates to an eyeball volume of 34 cc against 29.5 cc; a 15 percent difference.

With more brain power required for housekeeping and visual functions, less would have been available for social interactions, and it has been suggested the Neanderthal maximum social group size was smaller than the ‘Dunbar Number’ of 150 associated with modern humans. The area covered by extended Neanderthal communities would have been smaller than those of modern humans. Their ability to trade would have been reduced, as would their capacity to learn of distant foraging areas potentially unaffected by local shortages. Furthermore, their ability to acquire and pass on innovations may have been limited in comparison to modern humans.

In the high latitudes of Eurasia, far from their African homeland, modern humans were disadvantaged in as much as they lacked the enhanced visual acuity, as well as other Neanderthal adaptations to the colder climate. Unable to adapt their bodies, modern humans adapted their technology, and thus became more reliant on it than were the Neanderthals. However, technological change can greatly outpace evolutionary change. The combination of adaptable technology and enhanced social networks gave the first modern humans in Europe a competitive advantage over the physically-adapted Neanderthals, eventually bringing about the demise of the latter.


1. Pearce, E., Stringer, C. &  Dunbar, R., New insights into differences in brain organization between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280 (1758) (2013).

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