Anthropology / Everything Human

Survival of the Socially Fittest

News Brief

Survival of the Socially Fittest

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?

Evolution /

Republish With License
  • Torbjörn Larsson

    I’m fairly sure everyone knows this but if not, John Hawks has published a critique of the research a day after this article was published.

    I guess the long and short of it is this piece:

    “If we assume that “culture level” was a continuous variable, and that “modern humans” had a higher rate of increase than Neandertals, we get a very simple pattern. The data are not a simple pattern. So the “culture level” model seems like a bad model to account for the complexity of what actually happened.”

    [ ]