Neanderthals lost the human race but were no less intelligent than the early modern humans who replaced them, according to archaeological research that bucks stereotypes of slope-browed dimwits.
The study by two researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands concluded that modern humanity’s closest extinct relatives were no less advanced in hunting, tool use and culture than their contemporaries.
"We found no data in support of the supposed technological, social and cognitive inferiority of Neanderthals compared to their modern human contemporaries," Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University, said.
"The vision of primitive club-wielding brutes who in the end vanished when superior modern humans entered their world has been obsolete for a long time already."
Neanderthals prospered in Europe and Asia from about 350,000 BC to about 40,000 BC, but disappeared after early modern humans migrated from Africa.
The research backs up many modern studies that explode the long-held stereotype of Neanderthals being driven to extinction by the intellectual superiority of modern humans.
Other studies have theorised that Neanderthals declined because of competition, or an inability to adapt to significant climate changes.
Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said the truth was far more complex.
Genetic evidence shows there was inter-breeding between Neanderthals and the early modern humans, he said, and the remnants of the Neanderthal population may have been assimilated over a period of a few thousands of years, she said.
"In a certain sense, they are not completely extinct because some Neanderthal genes are present in our genome," Villa said.
Writing in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, Villa and Roebroeks highlighted some of the capabilities of Neanderthals.
They pointed to archaeological sites in Europe such as one in southwestern France, where Neanderthals probably herded bison to their deaths by leading them into a sinkhole.
Fossil remains of mammoths and woolly rhinos were found at the base of a ravine at a Channel Islands site, the likely victims of an organised hunt by Neanderthals.