May 01, 2014

Neanderthal Intelligence

A new study has tried to show that Neanderthals may not have been much dumber than humans after all. Of course, the evidence is sketchy and open to some measure of interpretation, or you wouldn’t have the other opposing views. The case is not at all closed. The evidence shows us that Neanderthals hunted in groups, made fires, buried their dead, used ochre presumably in rituals, foraged for wild berries, and probably showed tender care for their young. There is still no compelling evidence that I’m aware of that they spoke or wrote complex language (notwithstanding the finding that Neanderthals possessed brain regions related to speech), were capable of learning algebra and physics, invented any religions, or daydreamed of space travel. Only humans could do those things. We might be tempted to assume that Neanderthals had advanced intelligence like us, but it would not be supported by the evidence at this point.

Someone I’ve debated with before claimed that evidence is not interpreted. While it’s true that evidence can be so compelling that something becomes “proven,” most often pieces of evidence make for a very fragmented picture that needs lots of interpretation. Imagine a 500-piece puzzle with only 100 random pieces put together. Determining the final picture could be tricky and some guessing would be necessary. Even a recent crime scene often requires some measure of interpretation to figure out what happened and how it happened. Imagine how much more interpretation is required for evidence uncovered from tens of thousands of years ago! We are still in the early stages of understanding what kind of creatures the Neanderthals were. There is still much debate about how intelligent they were. The prevailing view is still that they had subhuman levels of intelligence. Someday an overwhelming consensus may form about them, but we’ll need buckets and buckets of more evidence to get to that point.

Why do I care how intelligent they were? Because in my theories, they were nonhumans without the Imago Dei (i.e. “the image of God”). They existed far earlier than Homo sapiens sapiens, and I doubt that Adam and Eve were Neanderthals. The first Neanderthals would probably not have lived near the Persian Gulf, where the Bible describes the Garden of Eden. So, a Neanderthal first couple would be a problem for various reasons. (Yes, Neanderthals did apparently interbreed with humans, but that is consistent with the Bible’s reference to humans interbreeding with the mysterious “sons of God” at least during two separate periods of time. These particular “sons of God” were likely angels somehow having fleshly bodies. It is my guess that fallen angels possessed Neanderthals and other pre-humans causing interbreeding. Some of their hybrid children became giants or “mighty men” in some way.)

Don’t get me wrong: Neanderthals were more intelligent than any other animals around, no doubt, since they were physically very similar to humans. Their brains were much larger than other animals, for one thing. It shouldn’t surprise us that Neanderthals would have been more intelligent than Border Collies, dolphins, or chimps. However, smart animals are still animals. Even chimps and ravens can build and use tools. Even wolves can work together to attack other animals. Even dolphins appear to use language. Beavers engineer complex structures. But, there’s uniqueness to the self-conscious existence of human beings that is hard to pin down. There’s also uniqueness to the creative brilliance of humankind that animals do not seem to come close to possessing. Were Neanderthals making poetry? Were they inventing chariots? Did they want to know their Creator? Were they smelting metals? Did they play music around the camp fire and dance? Probably not to all those questions. (Many anthropologists have deep questions about the so-called Neanderthal flute that was discovered, including if they were made by Neanderthals in the first place.) No, I don’t believe these highly intelligent animals were capable of reasoning like humans. I’m open to being shown to be wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.


  1. There's no reason to assume Neanderthals were less intelligent than Homo Sapiens. Infact, there's some evidence to imply they were actually smarter. Their failures may have been about their lack of social abilities and homo sapiens forming larger tribes. Also, Neanderthals are still alive today, albeit in a diminished form. Non-African human beings all have some % of Neanderthal DNA.

  2. Quinque viae,

    True, there's no hard evidence that Neanderthals were less intelligent. Only time will tell whether or not we can uncover solid evidence that they were at least as intelligent as modern humans.

    My proposal is that Neanderthals were not truly human (in a biblical sense). I can't have that discussion without getting into the Bible's Imago Dei concept of man—that there is a unique, spiritual component to man that may well include a heightened intellectual dimension as well. This proposal regarding Neanderthals is merely a hypothesis that cannot currently be proven. It's not clear whether they were human or nonhuman according to this definition. I see no compelling evidence, however, that they possessed the Imago Dei. (I don’t believe that being superstitious is equivalent to being spiritual. Neanderthals may have had vivid imaginations and superstitions about “invisible creatures” but not have been spiritual.)

    So, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Neanderthals were less intelligent based on hard evidence. Rather, I admittedly have a bias to believe this hypothesis based on my understanding of the Bible. It should be noted, however, that currently among mainstream anthropologists there’s a split of opinion about the level of intelligence of Neanderthals. It’s only a relatively new concept that Neanderthals were highly intelligent. My proposal isn’t outside the spectrum of mainstream interpretations, as best I can tell.

    As far as them still being alive today in one sense, I agree that there's a genetic remnant of them still existing. I've written about how that may fit with one interpretation of a strange passage of Genesis. It is fully possible that "prehuman" creatures interbred with humans and contaminated human DNA without destroying the Imago Dei. Humans are still humans even if there's a small percent of Neanderthal DNA in our genomes.

    Thanks for your comments! I enjoy hearing opposing views and considering them.