New research looked to explore the reasons why our distant cousins, the Neanderthals, became extinct.

Neanderthals were another species alongside man for thousands of years, yet disappeared around 28,000 years ago.  Scientists believe that a multitude of factors contributed to their extinction such as the encroachment of cold weather during the last ice age, being hunted and killed by prehistoric humans and evidence has surfaced that they interbred with humans.

People who do not have origins in Africa do have genetic similarities with Neanderthals as was seen when genetic studies were undertaken after the Neanderthal genome was sequenced.

In the research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society examined the size of the eyes and concluded that because they had larger eyes than humans, their brains needed to devote more space and resources to vision and not high level intellectual procession of information.

"Since Neanderthals evolved at higher latitudes, more of the Neanderthal brain would have been dedicated to vision and body control, leaving less brain to deal with other functions like social networking," said Eiluned Pearce of Oxford University who compared the skulls of 32 Homo sapiens skulls and 13 Neanderthals.

Neanderthals were around for approximately 250,000 years and had expanded out of Africa thousands of years before modern humans did.  It is because of this that researchers speculated that humans that had stayed in Africa had not needed larger eyes because it was always bright and sunny and therefore brain space was devoted towards increasing intellect.

Although they appear to have had less brain area devoted to other facets, they were actually a quite intelligent species that created clothing and tools, buried their dead with rituals and harnessed fire.

Previous research about the brains of Neanderthals has been performed by taking castings of the inside of their skulls, relying on morphology alone.  The present study enabled researchers to explore how the function of the brains was different between humans and Neanderthals. 

 

The report published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society can be found here