Human Skull Shapes Suggest Our Ability to Adapt Gave Us an Edge on Neanderthals
Neanderthals may have ended up as an evolutionary dead end, but at least they were artists (apparently). Though they may not have been able to grasp the finer points of art (like us), it looks like one of the main things that gave humans an edge over our thicker-browed relations was our larger cerebellums.
A new study published in Nature took a look at Neanderthal skulls, early human skulls, and almost 2,300 MRI scans of modern human skulls and found that there were subtle but distinct differences in the shapes of Neanderthals' skulls that suggested their brains were shaped differently.
After comparing groups of several thousand modern humans and their aptitudes for things like language processing, memory, and the ability to switch between tasks, scientists discovered that those with larger cerebellums appeared to have an advantage over those with smaller ones and that a larger cerebellum means small changes in skull shape.
Researchers then used this knowledge about the skull and brain to estimate how large Neanderthal cerebellums were, and found that they were probably smaller than modern humans.
According to Naomichi Ogihara, a biological anthropologist associated with the study: "The study clearly demonstrated that innate morphological differences in the brain structure actually existed between the two species."
All of this suggests humans had an advantage when it came to planning, adapting, and forming social bonds.
There's at least one issue with the study's findings, however: human brains (and the resulting skull shapes) may not provide the best models for figuring out how a Neanderthal brain looked.
Until we find a complete, preserved Neanderthal brain, we may not know exactly how smart, capable, or empathetic they were.
Some evidence suggests that Neanderthals actually had the capacity to be selfless caregivers, rather than cold, practical brutes. Time (and a lot more skulls) will tell.