Little room

The new idea about the Neanderthals is that they had very big eyes, so they had a lot of visual processing equipment which means they had little room for higher order thinking. It’s like eagles. Eagles have enormous eyes and most of their headspace is devoted to visual processing. They can see like demons but they’re lousy conversationalists.

It was dark up north in Europe, see.

The research team explored the idea that the ancestor of Neanderthals left Africa and had to adapt to the longer, darker nights and murkier days of Europe. The result was that Neanderthals evolved larger eyes and a much larger visual processing area at the backs of their brains.

The humans that stayed in Africa, on the other hand, continued to enjoy bright and beautiful days and so had no need for such an adaption. Instead, these people, our ancestors, evolved their frontal lobes, associated with higher-level thinking, before they spread across the globe.

And now we get music, and the internet, and the Mars Rover.

Don’t start dissing the Neanderthals again though.

Oxford University’s Prof Robin Dunbar, who supervised the study, said that the team wanted to avoid restoring the stereotypical image of Neanderthals.

“They were very, very smart, but not quite in the same league as Homo sapiens,” he told BBC News.

“That difference might have been enough to tip the balance when things were beginning to get tough at the end of the last ice age,” he said.

They weren’t really like eagles. Just not up to putting a rover on Mars.


  1. Francisco Bacopa says

    Neanderthals grew fast and strong. They called themselves “The People.” They matured young and were well adapted to their environment with perfect huge brains to perform all the tasks they needed to survive. The People knew how to thrive in the long winter with their cunning brains and keen eyes when other animals grew weak.

    The People did not know it, but their ancestors had stayed in Africa, they did not know what Africa was. Africa had a less varied climate, and success there depended on social connections, just like with The People, but the Ancestor race was more flexible, they could make new rules and form larger groups. Soon unknown Africa became overcrowded, and the the Ancestors spread northward. The People called these newcomers “Odd People”. Odd People were even hornier than The People and there was some sexual interaction, not all of it consensual. The People banished the few hybrids their women bore after they showed signs of seeming like an Odd Person. On occasion the Odd People would rescue a banished child. They seldom rejected their own hybrids.

    Soon the Odd People outnumbered The People. They were not so strong against the wolly rhino. The People marveled that the Odd People could assemble so large a group to take down a rhino. The People were lucky to get one a winter, but different groups of the Odd People worked together. They divided the meat and five groups could easily kill three rhinos a winter, enough for all.

    Maybe the reason we haven’t contacted intelligent life is that most of it is dead end hyper-intelligent but inflexible neanderthal types.

  2. AsqJames says

    Tip what balance?

    There was a discussion of this research on the latest edition of BBC R4’s Material World (not sure if this link works outside the UK).

    As I understood it, the theory is that the portion of brain modern humans didn’t use for the extra visual processing (and to control the larger body size the Neanderthals had) is used for socialising. The researcher they talked to suggested that a species capable of maintaining a wider social circle is better able to survive local or temporary resource failures (by which I assume she meant crop failure/game scarcity).

    If disaster hit co-located tribes of modern humans and Neanderthals, the humans could appeal to neighbouring tribes for assistance more readily because they knew them. Neanderthals didn’t have the brain power to maintain as many relationships, so perhaps they didn’t know anyone outside their immediate tribe well enough to get help.

    The number of maintained social contacts mentioned was 150, which is apparently pretty consistent across cultures and even on modern social networking sites like facebook and twitter.

  3. AsqJames says


    The full paper is available free here. I’m not qualified to assess the strength of the conclusions (parts of the paper are way over my head), but it’s clear they haven’t just looked at the relative size of eye sockets and jumped straight to a conclusion. From what I can understand, the main evidence seems to be the size and shape of the interior of the skull and the range (and relative sizes) of functional areas in the brains of current species of primates.

    p.s. Any relation to Commander Sir Samuel?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *