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Not So Fast: "Smart" Neanderthal Theory May be Suspect

Archeologists have long debated how developed the Neanderthals became before disappearing entirely from Europe some 30,000 years ago. Ccontrary to the caricature, some suggest that Neanderthals were cleverer than commonly believed.

This skull, found in southwestern Romania, includes features of both modern humans and Neanderthals, possibly suggesting that the two hominid species may have interbred thousands of years ago. (AP Photo/National Academy of Sciences) AP

Exhibit A: a major dig at Grotte du Renne, in Arcy-sur-Cure, France, which turned up a trove of jewelry, pendants and tools along with 29 Neanderthal teeth and a piece of ear bone from a Neanderthal skull. The Neanderthal remnants were excavated at the same archaeological levels where researchers found the jewelry and other ornaments.

Perhaps, then, Neanderthals either copied humans or even came up with the design ideas on their own? (Lending credence to that theory, researchers have also found evidence of what appear to be Neanderthal baubles at a couple of caves in Spain.)

A site filled with a range of ornaments and tools usually associated with humans would seem to offer persuasive evidence for behavioral complexity among Neanderthals. But a recent radiocarbon analysis of evidence gathered from six archaeological levels at the Grotte du Renne site reports that much of the material got moved around and was not found in the expected sequence. That raised suspicions that a physical disturbance likely disrupted the proper sequence of the layers. Oxford's Thomas Higham, whose team has worked on the site, cautions that this apparent dislocation aises questions about the proposed nexus between Neanderthals and the tools and jewelry they supposedly created.

"This site is one of only two in the French Palaeolithic that seems to show a link between ornaments and Neanderthal remains," according to Higham. "This has previously been interpreted as indicating that Neanderthals were not intellectually inferior to modern people but possessed advanced cognition and behaviour. Our work says there is a big question mark over whether this link exists."

The Grotte du Renne was excavated between 1949 and 1963, turning up evidence of hominids dating as far back as 45,000 years.

You can read more about the findings published by Higham and his team in the online version of the journal PNAS.