I went to a public lecture at the University of York on Neanderthals last night, it was about using archeological evidence for signs of caring and even love in earlier times. It seems that a large part of the research has to be about understanding both the similarities and differences between the Neanderthals and us.
Neanderthals were shorter, stockier and stronger than us. They also travelled less far and had smaller, more compact social groups.
Interestingly, they were less attached to objects - you might call us in comparison materialistic, treasuring beads, shells and small sculptures. It becomes easy for me to imagine them as being more spiritual or arty and finding us frivolous, and perhaps composing a complex song to sing around the fire with their big hairy lungs.
The most striking difference to me was that their technology didn't develop for hundreds and hundreds of thousand years. Neanderthals flint tools stayed the same. I guess you could call them very traditional ... inward-looking on a bad day.
With the arrival of homo sapiens however, our tools changed in a comparative whirlwind, developing new approaches and refinements.
So, we don't know if the Neanderthals were thicker than us. They might not have been, and the fact there's 5% of their DNA in ours, they maybe weren't as distant a cousin as we'd like to think. We don't know if they were any less dextrous than us either. But what we do know is that man travelled more, probably met more people and had a richer social network. It seems we were more curious and happy to explore and meet people.
So, the rise of man and the disappearance of the Neanderthal might not be because we were more intelligent (we might not have been) or more skilled (again we might not have been), we definitely weren't stronger either ... but because when we had a good (or bad ) idea twenty other people got to see it rather than three. So, human ideas themselves might not even have been better than Neanderthal ideas, but more people were exposed to them, able to use or adapt them or refine them.
I find that idea stunning, that it's potentially not how good the idea is, but how far it can travel easily that creates innovation and development, don't you? Say it again... it's not the quality of an idea that counts - it's how many people it can touch that determines if it's a good idea.