Myths about Neandertals

Tyler Cowen comments on last week's "Let's clone mammoths, and OOH OOH Neandertals too" article. I'm pointing to the post because the commenters embody so many popular myths about Neandertals.

OK, so they "parrot," not "embody"...but that was too juicy a mistake not to make.

Anyway, the myths go both ways:

1. "[H]e'd probably grow up into a kick ass middle linebacker."

Neandertals were hunter-gatherers, and males had an average mass of around 80 kg (176 pounds). College linebackers weigh around 240 pounds -- they're not the real big players, because they have to run and move with great agility. Most college linebackers are around 6-2, Neandertal men were around 5-6.

Weight training and diet routinely make good high school linebackers weighing 180 into college linebackers. So there's nothing impossible about making a Neandertal into a linebacker, albeit a relatively short one. But their frame wouldn't give them any inherent advantage that I can see.

Now, wrestling on the other hand, matched for weight, might be interesting...

2. "The problem is they're going to look a little funny, and I think their coordination is kind of lousy."

Looking funny? Sure, every different group of people in the world looks a little funny, and Neandertals would be no exception. On the other hand, I hear from many readers (and wives of readers) to know that there are men out there who are phenotypically Neandertal-like. No surprise; the modern human population varies extensively.

Coordination: Try hunting a bison with three other guys armed only with spears, and tell me that Neandertals were uncoordinated.

3. "My understanding is that neanderthals probably had the same cognitive capacity as sapiens."

The range of human cognitive abilities is large, and Neandertals did many things that fall within that range. But it doesn't logically follow that the Neandertal average was within the range of today's population averages. The archaeological record really doesn't support any conclusions at all, other than to point out that Neandertals behaved in ways that overlap with modern human hunter-gatherers, but somewhat differently from later Upper Paleolithic Europeans.

4. "Whether Neanderthals could be integrated into modern society seems to me to be very much an open question."

The range of human cognitive abilities is large, and we seem to be able to integrate almost everybody into modern society. The point here is that we deal with human variability every day. Regardless of the average cognitive talents of Neandertals, there are almost certainly many people of equal abilities around us now.

5. "Would Neanderthals be allowed to compete in the Olympics? There are events such as fencing where they would do exceptionally poorly, but there are other events such as weight lifting where humans would have no chance."

I wouldn't rate their fencing chances so poorly -- their agility in ambushing large animal prey may have given them a great fencing stance.

Olympic weightlifting, on the other hand, is an activity that only a very small fraction of the Earth's population can excel at. We are starting to have evidence that it takes a very strange combination of genes, diet and training to make the muscle growth and strength happen. Those genes may not be limited to any single human population, but it's not very likely that all of them would have been in Neandertals, or that they would have others to take their place.

It's always misleading to compare averages (in this case, Neandertal muscle mass and bone strength relative to skeletal human populations). Take a look at the bones of a weightlifter, at the extreme of the human distribution, and you'll find them to be quite a bit stronger than Neandertals. Who knows, with training, but we're not talking about a natural population of weightlifters here.