It's a well-ingrained stereotype: That Neanderthals grunted their way through life as less than brilliant "club-wielding brutes." A new study published in Plos One says that just isn't so. Scientists have long theorized that early modern humans had a cognitive advantage (which translated, they posited, into a better diet, better weapons, and better communication) that allowed them to survive when Neanderthals did not some 40,000 years ago. Wil Roebroeks at the Netherlands' Leiden University was one of two researchers who dug through archaeological records looking for research to support the idea of a dimwitted demise, but instead found "there is no archaeology to back them up." Adds Dr. Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, "The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there."
In terms of being able to communicate and work as a team, they point to a sinkhole in France where Neanderthals are believed to have steered hundreds of bison to their deaths; food remains at cooking sites suggest a diverse diet that included pistachios and wild olives, a press release notes. Villa says part of the issue is that Neanderthals have long been compared to humans who came after them (in the Upper Paleolithic period) rather than those who were their Middle Paleolithic contemporaries. Quips Villa, "It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and conclude that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari." So why did they die out? Roebroeks and Villa think the answer is a complex one, but note that interbreeding with modern humans may have produced infertile male offspring, the Guardian reports. (And there's more evidence that Neanderthals weren't the brutes their name suggests.)