Anthropology Magazine

Survival of the Socially Fittest

Survival of the Socially Fittest

In the great saga of evolution, humans survived and Neanderthals didn’t. New research suggests why.

Humans (Homo sapiens) may have caused the extinction of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) because of our greater talent for social innovation and tool creation. This new conclusion makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about the disappearance of our closest relative, and the role humans may have played.

The disappearance of the Neanderthal has been a long-standing point of deliberation in anthropology, largely dividing the community into two different lines of thought: those who think humans were the primary culprits and those who think the extinction was caused by natural factors such as disease or a changing climate. The new research, published online today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides mathematical evidence for the idea that humans could have been responsible for the demise of the Neanderthals.

To tease apart the role of humans from environmental factors, Stanford University researchers used an existing ecological model that assesses competition between species. The researchers compared two different factors for both humans and Neanderthals: the overall population size and the cultural ability of the competing species, which includes their ability and proficiency with objects, such as tools, and their overall social innovation.

Despite the relatively larger population of Neanderthals, the researchers found that humans had the cultural advantage. This allowed them to compete for resources better than Neanderthals and ultimately replace their competitors in the shared environment.

In the past year, other studies have emerged on both sides of the question, including a study suggesting that volcanic cooling may have played a role. In any case, the new research published today helps answer a basic question: How did humans relate to and compete with other species?