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Cultural Advances Of Modern Humans Drove Neanderthals To Extinction: Study

The cultural superiority of our human ancestors may have given them a deadly edge over our Neanderthal cousins, consequently driving the latter into extinction.

This supports the idea that instead of epidemics or climate change wiping out the Neanderthals, as previously believed, it was humans who had done it.

"Cultural Wars"

Thousands of years ago, our Neanderthal cousins lived in what is now known as Europe, even before our human ancestors arrived in the area.

According to scientists, humans came to Europe about 43,000 years ago. Some 5,000 years later, Neanderthals went extinct.

Experts are uncertain as to what really happened, but there are different theories that attempt to explain why and how Neanderthals were wiped out.

While some believe that Neanderthals died because of epidemics or climate change, others think that modern humans took down Neanderthals with better clothing, tools or social organization.

A small group of researchers, led by Professor Marcus Feldman of Stanford University, argues that the cultural and technological advances of modern humans could have been the tipping point.

In a study featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team adjusted a mathematical model often used to predict competition between populations. They added, for the first time, dimensions for the ability to learn and cultural advantage.

Researchers modified the model so that the more culturally advanced a group was, the larger it could grow.

As modern humans were moving into Neanderthal territory, scientists said it was likely that those who were dominant arrived in small numbers, in comparison to already established Neanderthal groups.

Despite being outnumbered, the cultural skills that modern humans brought with them could have allowed them to hunt, settle land, use resources more efficiently than the original residents.

Eventually, the population of modern humans swelled, making them even more powerful, researchers said. An even smaller number of modern humans could have overwhelmed a much larger Neanderthal population that did not have culture.

Additionally, if the culture levels were different, modern humans could have begun with half as many people and still win out.

Not A Case Of Brainpower

Feldman said it was not a case of whether modern humans were smarter than Neanderthals. Research suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals had similar brainpower, a trait that slowly evolves through time.

What allowed modern humans to outsmart Neanderthals were resources: modern humans had more tools, more clothes and more complex form of society. These cultural and technological advances spread from person to person, especially when coupled with superior learning abilities.

However, not everyone agrees with this. A 2014 study reviewed several arguments for human cultural superiority and had found them lacking.

Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder and Leiden University said they did not find any data to support the theory that Neanderthals were inferior in social, cognitive and technological aspects.

This indicated that the extinction of Neanderthals had resulted from a combination of factors.

Feldman and his colleagues do not settle the debate over humankind's 15,000-year conquest of Europe and Middle East. Rather, it merely tests the possibility of the cultural argument. It's an attempt to tie together what archaeologists have uncovered and direct to new things they might have to look for in the field.

Lastly, Feldman said one thing that can improve their mathematical model is a measure of the speed at which anatomically modern humans could have spread across Europe.

"We'd like to see the geographic trajectory - how much migration there would have to be and at what pace it would have to happen to reconstruct what geologists tell us," added Feldman.

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