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Whether cognitive differences exist between modern humans and Neanderthals is the subject of contentious disputes in anthropology and archaeology. Because the brain size range of modern humans and Neanderthals overlap, many researchers previously assumed that the cognitive capabilities of these two species were similar. Among humans, however, the internal organization of the brain is more important for cognitive abilities than its absolute size is. The brain's internal organization depends on the tempo and mode of brain development.
Based on detailed measurements of internal shape changes of the braincase during individual growth, a team of scientists from the MPI has shown that these are differences in the patterns of brain development between humans and Neanderthals during a critical phase for cognitive development.
Discussions about the cognitive abilities of fossil humans usually focus on material culture (e.g. the complexity of the stone tool production process) and endocranial volumes. "The interpretation of the archaeological evidence remains controversial, and the brain-size ranges of Neanderthals and modern humans overlap," says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Department of Human Evolution at the MPI-EVA in Leipzig where the research was conducted. Hublin adds, "our findings show how biological differences between modern humans and Neanderthals may be linked to behavioural differences inferred from the archaeological record."
Nature of the evidence: As the brain does not fossilize, for fossil skulls, only the imprints of the brain and its surrounding structures in the bone (so called "endocasts") can be studied. The researchers used state-of-the-art statistical methods to compare shape changes of virtual endocasts extracted from computed-tomographic scans. The distinct globular
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