A new study suggests that Neanderthals died out because their eyes were too big. The theory, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is that Neanderthals were the first human ancestors to leave Africa and head north to Europe and its shorter, darker days. There they evolved larger eyes, the better to see with, but that left them with less room in their skull for other things. Homo sapiens, meanwhile, stayed behind in sunnier climes, where their smaller eye sockets allowed room for their frontal lobes to grow, which in turn gave them a higher ability to think and adapt. If there’s not a lesson in there for politicians and governments, then we’ve missed our calling.
In short, the Neanderthals were the single-issue party of their day. They were dominant in Europe for about 100,000 years, where they got really good at hunting woolly mammoths and finding things in gloomy caves. They saw what they needed to see and were successful for what amounts to, in the history of human evolution, the rough equivalent of one or two terms in office.
It is wrong, scientists say, to assume Neanderthals were dimwitted. They were quite intelligent, made tools, spoke languages and had brains similar in size to those of modern man. Their downfall was that they devoted too much their brain to a single purpose. They may have thought they were on to something but, when a new ice age arrived, their sharp-eyed brains were unable to help them adapt. Their main food source, woolly mammoths, died out, leaving them clumsily chasing smaller game like rabbits. They could still see well in low light, but there was no room in their craniums for such adaptations as co-operative living or sewing warm clothes together. Huddled in small groups wrapped in crude animal skins, they eventually died out and were replaced by homo sapiens, who, among other things, could sew tailored clothing and knew how to farm.
Homo sapiens’ advantage was that they had inadvertently allowed their brain to evolve into an organ of adaptation and innovation. That bit of luck has carried us a long way. It may also be our undoing, but only if we forget what happened to our ancestors. It’s one thing to be able to see; it’s another thing altogether to understand.