Were Cro-Magnons smarter than us?

As an article from the Daily Mail points out, early Homo sapiens had bigger brains than we do. Cro-Magnons, living in Europe perhaps as early as 45,000 years ago, had 10 percent more brain than the average human today. (Neanderthals had bigger brains, too, but, unlike those of Cro-Magnons, theirs grew in a differently shaped skull.)

So does this mean that Cro-Magnons and other big-brained earlier humans were smarter than us? Not necessarily, but it also doesn’t mean that they weren’t smarter.

An expert cited in the Daily Mail article gives a more common opinion:

Dr Lahr thinks that part of the answer may lie in improving
efficiency ... 'We may have smaller brains than early humans 
but it doesn't mean we are less intelligent,' she said.
If anyone thinks that scientists are dispassionate inquirers after Truth, they should review the many celebratory reports of our ancestors’ gradually increasing brain size once our lineage split from that of chimps and bonobos. It is rare to find frank acknowledgements that:
  • our brains are smaller than those of our more-recent ancestors (e.g. Cro-Magnons) and
  • we don’t actually have a good definition of intelligence or an understanding of the relationship between brain size and smarts, however defined.

This second issue means that Lahr is technically correct: brain size might change for any number of reasons without affecting intelligence, depending on how we define it. But many researchers do assume that increasing brain size accompanied greater “intelligence” among earlier species in our line, say from Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”) to Homo habilis. So why would that association between size and smarts stop once brain size decreases in our species? Could it be that researchers suffer from an emotional stake in our superiority?

(By the way, we could begin to test Lahr’s idea by comparing a series of skulls within various species to see whether it is common for brain size to decrease in this fashion.)

Maybe, as individuals, we actually are less “intelligent” than our ancestors, whether due to dietary changes or to some other cause. For these purposes, let’s consider intelligence to be the combination of our cognitive flexibility and creativity. Flexibility is basically the ability to learn and remember, and creativity is the ability to produce new ideas or combinations of ideas. Why wouldn’t a hunter-gatherer – moving throughout a large and varied landscape and frequently encountering different people, plants, places, and animals – need more intelligence, thus defined, than a sedentary farmer? Or a factory worker? Or a blogger?

If our ancestors were capable of more flexibility and creativity than us, would that make us less valuable?


6 responses to “Were Cro-Magnons smarter than us?

  1. Peter Mcintyre

    Why get caught up with such a difficult concept as intelligence.

    The real issue is what changes in our cognitive abilties have resulted from our smaller brain size.

    Given the size of the human population and the relatively short time over which the change has occurred it should be fairly straight forward to resolve the issue by testing the correlation between brain size and cognitive abilities amongst present day humans.


    • Thanks for the comment. I apologize for taking so long to approve it: WordPress automatically sent it to the spam folder, which I just checked.

      I think that your suggestion makes sense as a partial approach to the issue – and I believe that it has been done. But the factors that result in different brain size among present-day humans might not be the same as the ones that have resulted in an average diminution over millenia.

      I would argue that – in addition to the questions of whether the brains are larger or smaller and what sort of difference this makes (e.g., maybe memory was potentially greater but communication slower) – different lifestyles may lead to strikingly different cognitive abilities. The concept of “intelligence” is too aggregate, but it might be that our ancestors, for whatever reason, had various cognitive qualities that we value in greater abundance than we have. (Or our cousins: I, for one, would be happy to be able to keep up with these chimps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTgeLEWr614.)


  2. The laws of evolution would state we are growing dumber by the year. Cromagnon needed to be self reliant, today we have technology and the state supporting the feeble minded. Add to this democracy, mass media and socialist policies and you can see a slow devolution of the human race.


    • Thanks, Joe, for reading the post. But I would hate to think that anything I’ve written would lead you to believe any of what you’ve written.


  3. En realidad no faltan investigadores cientificos que escriben que la especie humana lleva un largo proceso de reduccion de habilidades cognitivas.


  4. Tal vez, Antonio, pero hay mas cientificos que no dudan que el ser humano actual es el organismo mas ‘inteligente.’ Un problema en este ramo de estudios es que, aun cuando nos enfocamos sobre una sola habilidad, mas o menos aislada, no se puede distinguir entre la capacidad y la realizacion.


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