Neanderthal Brains Compared to Chimps'

on November 13, 2010

ScienceNOW: “Neandertal Brains Developed More Like Chimps’Talk about insulting: our Neanderthal kin/ancestors, who have already taken years of unfair abuse, are now having their brains compared to chimps’!

The evidence has been overwhelmingly clear: there’s no reason to pick on Neanderthals as half-wits. From their methods of tool-making to the size of their brains, Neanderthals were clearly as “modern” as the next human. And because their DNA is found in many Europeans today, it’s doubtful (especially to creationists) that Neanderthals constituted a clearly defined subgroup of humanity.

One major difference the team uncovered is how quickly the parietal and temporal lobes and cerebellums of the human brain develop in the first year of life.

Even so, popular perception has made “Neanderthal” a derogatory term, and new research from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology threatens to reinforce that inaccurate view. Scientists at the institute examined a number of CT scans of human and chimp brains in various stages of development, comparing the process of development in different parts of the brain. One major difference the team uncovered is how quickly the parietal and temporal lobes and cerebellums of the human brain develop in the first year of life. Among other processes, these regions influence speech and social interaction, two areas that clearly distinguish humans from chimps.

Because researchers cannot examine Neanderthal brains, they examined the imprints of brains on the inside of nine Neanderthal skulls, including a newborn’s and a one-year-old’s. The team concluded that Neanderthal brain growth did not encompass the same quick development of the parietal, temporal, and cerebellum areas as in the other human brains studied. “Although they have the same brain size as us, Neandert[h]als missed something that humans got in the first year of life,” one researcher explained, suggesting Neanderthals may have been inferior at language and complex social behavior.

Not so fast, says University of Zurich anthropologist Marcia Ponce de León, who criticizes the study’s small Neanderthal sample size and notes that the newborn Neanderthal’s skull was incomplete. However, the researchers respond that modeling human brain growth with slower parietal, temporal, and cerebellum development results in adult brain shapes that look like Neanderthals’, and that they’ve “confirmed their findings in a second, more complete Neandertal newborn.”

The two biggest problems, of course, are that there are neither extant Neanderthal brains nor living Neanderthals to study, both of which render the team’s conclusions highly speculative. Given the evidence that Neanderthals were intelligent and social (with evidence of behaviors far more sophisticated than chimps’), one wonders how severely their skills could have been handicapped. It is, however, theoretically possible that Neanderthals, as a group, had a condition that affected their speech and/or social interaction, or that the studied individuals had such a condition.

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