Around 40,000 years ago, modern humans arrived in Europe and rapidly replaced their Neanderthal cousins as the most dominant species on Earth and it is most likely because of the way modern brains functioned.
Human migrants from Africa first set foot in Europe around 40,000 years back and at this time, Neanderthals were already spread through the land, occupying forests and shorelines for over 200,000 years prior to this event. However, as soon as modern humans showed up, the Neanderthal population dropped drastically, notes a report by Phys.org. One of the biggest mysteries in anthropology has always been why and how the rapid and total replacement of early humans take place.
A new study digitally recreated four Neanderthal brains for the first time ever and this has dropped some valuable clues on solving this mystery, notes the report. When compared to a modern brain, several things seem readily apparent, like the different ways in which modern brains process information and this could have been one of the reasons why humans outperformed their primitive cousins.
To begin recreating a Neanderthal brain, scientists first scanned and measured the overall shape of the inside of four skulls. For human brains, thousands of MRIs were studied and an average was drawn.
Once both images were recreated, a computer program was used to warp the human brain to match the interior shape of the Neanderthal skull. This method, notes the report is not entirely untested and has been used before to study and compare bonobo brains with chimpanzee brains.
When scaled into a Neanderthal skull, scientists found that while both brains have a similar size, there was a clear distinction in the shape of the brains. The cerebellum, which makes up the lower back of the head, was found to be bigger for humans that Neanderthals. It is here that speech, comprehension and production, cognitive flexibility, and working memory is processed.
Neanderthals had much smaller cerebellums, when compared to the human invaders. They could also not adapt to the changing environment fast enough, leading to their downfall.
The study was first published in the journal Scientific Reports.