Were social networks humanity’s edge over Neanderthals?

Were social networks humanity’s edge over Neanderthals?

The following is a brief excerpt from a conversation with  Jean-Jacques Hublin, founder and director of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. [1]

What do we know about Neanderthal culture around the time they were wiped out? [2]

I must say our understanding of Neanderthal culture remains limited and is mostly connected to the kinds of artifacts they left. I think the culture is similar to the modern humans who lived at the same time period. We don’t see major differences in terms of technical capabilities. Of course we’re always trying to find out why one group replaced the other. And so I think recently most of the discussion has focused on other aspects of cognition that are not directly related to technology. For example, social organization, group networking and things like that. I think this is probably where the differences may lie between modern humans and Neanderthals. We are starting to develop some approaches for that, for example, it’s possible more and more to understand what was the size of a territory for a group of Neanderthals and what kind of exchanges they had between other groups. Now we’re also beginning to understand how individuals moved around during their lifetimes.

(Reconstructed face of a Neanderthal man)

What’s the significance of that?

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don’t see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same area is different. In Germany we find we find shells in some human sites coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that. There is a large network of groups that, if necessary, could help each other. I think this is where we would like to go to find differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.



[1] The entire article: Were social networks humanity’s edge over Neandertals? [2]

[2] Please note that both in the title and throughout the body of the article, the alternative spelling ‘Neandertal’ is used. I have altered the spelling to the more traditional ‘Neanderthal’ for the purposes of this piece.


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