There is no reason to suppose that a difference as radical as true language vs. protolanguage is required to explain why modern humans replaced Neanderthals so quickly. In much shorter spaces of time, groups of modern humans have replaced other groups with identical biological capacities; it took only decades, not millennia, for Europeans to replace Tasmanians, for instance. The precise nature of Neanderthal capacities and of human-Neanderthal interactions remains tantalizingly obscure, and is still controversial (Knight et al. 281).
While the precise nature of the Neanderthal intellect and human-Neanderthal interactions remain unclear, there is some evidence in the archaeological record that lends support to the theory that Neanderthals simply did not have what it took to keep up with Homo sapiens. For instance, Findlayson reports that the stone tools used by the Neanderthals (usually described as being Mousterian), are more complex than those of Homo erectus; however, they also show far less variety and precision than the stone tools used by anatomically modern Homo sapiens (Christian 168). According to this author, "There are hints of Neanderthal art or burial ritual, both of which might have signaled an increased use of symbolic communication (but the evidence is ambiguous). And there is little sign of great social complexity. Like earlier hominines, Neanderthals seem to have lived primarily in simple family groups that had limited contact with each other. There is no evidence that Neanderthals could have had the same impact on the planet as modern humans" (Christian 168).
While it is perhaps reasonable to assert that the Neanderthals could have evolved to become as technologically proficient as their Homo sapien counterparts had they been given sufficient time, nature does not wait for any species and it would appear that the Neanderthals just could not compete. In this regard, Bisson reports that, "The Neanderthals survived alongside anatomically modern Homo sapiens for thousands of years because of their physical strength and cold-adapted bodies, but anatomically modern Homo sapiens ultimately triumphed because they continued to innovate their technology and because a cooling climate reduced the Neanderthals' favored habitat while at the same time favoring the broader cultural alliances achieved by the larger and more integrated anatomically modern Homo sapiens' societies" (711).
New discoveries in the archaeological record, though, continue to redefine the historic timeline during which Neanderthals flourished. In a recent report from Professor Clive Finlayson, of the Gibraltar Museum indicates that lived in southern Europe as recently as 28,000 years ago, had a varied diet and used sophisticated tools and weapons. The report notes that Homo neanderthalensis is widely believed to have survived in Europe until the arrival of anatomically modern Homo sapiens approximately 30,000 years ago; however, recent findings by Finlayson indicate that the two groups may have coexisted in Europe for 4,000 years or longer. According to Finlayson, "We are showing quite clearly that they survived at the very least until 28,000 years ago and possibly as recently as 24,000 years. That is significantly later than previously thought" (quoted in Camp find extends Neanderthal timeline 3).
The study also reports that during the period in which Europe was seized by an ice age, the last remaining Neanderthals had sequestered themselves in a temperate zone on the southern tip of Europe until their species became extinct. Not only is the archaeological record continuing to be redefined, these recent findings are also changing the way modern researchers view the Neanderthals. "Despite their image as club-carrying, hairy brutes," Finlayson notes, "research suggests they were expert tool makers, used animal skins to keep warm and may have cared for each other" (Camp find extends Neanderthal timeline 4). The recent excavations at Gibraltar's Gorham's Cave have found a campfire made by Neanderthals and the remains of tools, flint weapons and animal fossils (Camp find extends Neanderthal timeline 4).
The remains found included mammals, birds and shellfish, and the charcoal found in the campfire at the site allowed researchers to carbon date it with accuracy. In addition, researchers were able to reconstruct the environment in which the late Neanderthals lived and determined that it included a wide range of plant materials. These findings suggest that the Neanderthals were able to live in some northern regions that were previously deemed inhospitable for them. In this regard, Finlayson reports that the findings indicate that.".. In spite of the glaciations further up in Europe, this was a place where the climate was still sufficiently mild for populations of Neanderthals to survive quite late. The last Neanderthals that occupied Gorham's Cave had access to a diverse community of plants and vertebrates on the sandy plains, open woodland and shrubland, wetlands, cliff and coastal environments surrounding the site. Such ecological diversity might have facilitated their long survival" (quoted in Camp find extends Neanderthal timeline 5). Researchers continue excavation in the Gibraltar cave where stone tools were discovered five decades ago; in addition, they will also be searching for Neanderthal burial sites in the cave's less accessible areas (Camp find extends Neanderthal timeline 4).
In an effort to determine whether Neanderthals interbred with Homo sapiens at some point in the shared history, P bo and Krings investigated the sequence of Neanderthal DNA with the sequence from the equivalent section of modern human DNA. The findings of this study were clear: "Neanderthal DNA and human DNA were quite different. To be exact, P bo and Krings found the Neanderthal DNA varied from human DNA sequences by an average of 26 individual differences. To be sure the results were correct, researchers Anne Stone and Mark Stoneking repeated each step of the procedure at an independent laboratory at the Department of Anthropology of Pennsylvania State University. The DNA they extracted was exactly the same, which confirmed P. bo and Krings' results" (cited in Meyer at 31). In a subsequent study, Krings, P bo and their colleagues extracted DNA from Neanderthal bones found in a cave in Croatia; the results of this study were consistent with the previous one and the DNA was shown to be quite different from that of modern humans (cited in Meyer at 33). According to Meyer, "There was only one conclusion that P. bo and his team could make. If Neanderthals truly were human ancestors, their DNA would have been much more similar to modern human DNA. Instead, their work provided the first truly clear evidence that Neanderthals could not possibly have been human ancestors" (32).
The research showed that the Neanderthals were a species genetically similar to anatomically modern Homo sapiens with brains as large or larger. Neanderthals were also shown to be rugged survivors with a penchant for opportunism, but the research was consistent in emphasizing that they just could not compete with the superior technologies and social arrangements brought to bear by Homo sapiens. Finally, the DNA studies to date suggest that Neanderthals did not interbreed with Homo sapiens, but they may have lingered longer in the caves at Gibraltar than scientists have previously believed.
Bisson, M.S. (2004). "The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(3):710-11.
Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Graham-Rowe, Duncan. (2005). "The first complete reconstruction of a Neanderthal." Mousterian (Neanderthal) Sites. Online]. Available: http://donsmaps.com/mousterian.html.
Hoffecker, John F. A Prehistory of the North: Human Settlement of the Higher Latitudes. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Knight, Chris, Michael Studdert-Kennedy and James R. Hurford. The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Meyer, Anna. Hunting the Double Helix: How DNA Is Solving Puzzles of the Past. Crows…