From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published March 13, 2013 03:25 PM

Neanderthal Man Senses

The Neanderthals are an extinct species or subspecies of the genus Homo which is closely related to modern humans. They are known from fossils, dating from the Pleistocene period, which have been found in Europe and parts of western and central Asia. Still what and who were they? How ere the same end how were they different? Neanderthal brains were adapted to allow them to see better and maintain larger bodies, according to new research by the University of Oxford and the Natural History Museum, London.

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Although Neanderthals' brains were similar in size to their contemporary modern human counterparts, fresh analysis of fossil data suggests that their brain structure was rather different. Results imply that larger areas of the Neanderthal brain, compared to the modern human brain, were given over to vision and movement and this left less room for the higher level thinking required to form large social groups.

Neanderthal cranial capacity is thought to have been as large as that of modern humans, perhaps larger, indicating that their brain size may have been comparable, or larger, as well. In 2008, a group of scientists created a study using three-dimensional computer-assisted reconstructions of Neanderthal infants based on fossils found in Russia and Syria. The study showed Neanderthal and modern human brains were the same size at birth, but by adulthood, the Neanderthal brain was larger than the modern human brain.

The new analysis was conducted by Eiluned Pearce and Professor Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford and Professor Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum, London, and is published in the online version of the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Looking at data from 27,000—75,000-year-old fossils, mostly from Europe and the Near East, they compared the skulls of 32 anatomically modern humans and 13 Neanderthals to examine brain size and organization. In a subset of these fossils, they found that Neanderthals had significantly larger eye sockets, and therefore eyes, than modern humans.

The researchers calculated the standard size of fossil brains for body mass and visual processing requirements. Once the differences in body and visual system size are taken into account, the researchers were able to compare how much of the brain was left over for other cognitive functions.

Previous research by the Oxford scientists shows that modern humans living at higher latitudes evolved bigger vision areas in the brain to cope with the low light levels. This latest study builds on that research, suggesting that Neanderthals probably had larger eyes than contemporary humans because they evolved in Europe, whereas contemporary humans had only recently emerged from lower latitude Africa.

"Since Neanderthals evolved at higher latitudes and also have bigger bodies than modern humans, more of the Neanderthal brain would have been dedicated to vision and body control, leaving less brain to deal with other functions like social networking," explains lead author Eiluned Pearce from the  Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

"Smaller social groups might have made Neanderthals less able to cope with the difficulties of their harsh Eurasian environments because they would have had fewer friends to help them out in times of need. Overall, differences in brain organization and social cognition may go a long way towards explaining why Neanderthals went extinct whereas modern humans survived."

"The large brains of Neanderthals have been a source of debate from the time of the first fossil discoveries of this group, but getting any real idea of the quality of their brains has been very problematic," says Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum and co-author on the paper. "Hence discussion has centered on their material culture and supposed way of life as indirect signs of the level of complexity of their brains in comparison with ours."

"Our study provides a more direct approach by estimating how much of their brain was allocated to cognitive functions, including the regulation of social group size; a smaller size for the latter would have had implications for their level of social complexity and their ability to create, conserve and build on innovations."

Professor Robin Dunbar observes: "Having less brain available to manage the social world has profound implications for the Neanderthals’ ability to maintain extended trading networks, and are likely also to have resulted in less well developed material culture — which, between them, may have left them more exposed than modern humans when facing the ecological challenges of the Ice Ages."

The relationship between absolute brain size and higher cognitive abilities has long been controversial, and this new study could explain why Neanderthal culture appears less developed than that of early modern humans. Neanderthal behavior is subject to much study and speculation.  They made advanced tools, had language (the nature of which is debated) and lived in complex though smaller social groups.

For further information see Neanderthal Man.

Skull image via Wikipedia.

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