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A psychologist weighs in on the Neanderthal extinction

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If it was really an extinction:

Recently, Vaesen, Dusseldorp, and Brandt (2021) published a study of Neandertal extinction theories. Noting over “a dozen serious hypotheses” about the enigmatic disappearance of our nearest cousins, these authors conducted a poll to determine which hypothesis paleoanthropologists thought most likely.

Frederick L. Coolidge and Karenleigh A. Overmann, “An Emerging Consensus About Neandertal Extinction?” at Psychology Today

The fact that there were a dozen hypotheses about why Neanderthals disappeared as a separate group means that no one really has any real idea what happened.

Vaesen and colleagues concluded the “vote” favored the idea that “internal, demographic dynamics of Neanderthal populations” caused their extinction. Perhaps Neandertal populations were simply “too small to persist in the long run.” This assumes that Neandertal groups were smaller just because they were smaller—that is, that population size has nothing to do with biology, brains, or cognition. However, it also fails to explain why—if Neandertals were indistinguishable from Homo sapiens—they had such low population density in the first place. This is a critical omission for something likely to have a plausible biological explanation.

Frederick L. Coolidge and Karenleigh A. Overmann, “An Emerging Consensus About Neandertal Extinction?” at Psychology Today

Coolidge and Overmann fault paleoanthropologists for refusing to recognize that Neanderthals were very different from modern humans, that “ the two species differed in ways that were subtle but meaningful to natural selection.” They drag in Galileo to make their point and end with “The idea there were differences may not be what indistinguishability adherents want to hear. But insisting on dogma, voting on hypothesis popularity, and disparaging those who hold different views are not science.”

Okay maybe.

Of course, it’s all very interesting. That is why we listen.But a dozen different theories are called “science” only out of courtesy. And it’s not clear that Coolidge and Overmann’s thirteenth theory (if that’s the count) is any improvement.


Vaesen, K., Dusseldorp, G. L., & Brandt, M. J. (2021). An Emerging Consensus consensus in palaeoanthropology: Demography was the main factor responsible for the disappearance of Neanderthals. Scientific Reports, 11 (4925). Open access.

Wynn, T., Overmann, K. A., & Coolidge, F. L. (2016). The false dichotomy: A refutation of the Neandertal indistinguishability claim. Journal of Archaeological Science, 94, 1-22. doi 10.4436/jass.94022 (open access)

Some theories aired:

See also: US Prez accuses Texas and Mississippi governors of “Neanderthal thinking” How about New York governor Cuomo packing nursing homes with COVID patients, which resulted in thousands of deaths? Now that we have channelled Neanderthal man anyway, does he have an opinion on that?


Researchers: Neanderthals could speak like other humans Researchers: “Most previous studies of Neandertal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language. However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates.”


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