Paleoneurology — the study of the evolution of the brain — is the study of fossil brains of extinct life forms. The brain, as it happens, is “wetware” which doesn’t fossilize so paleoneurologists actually study endocasts (natural or virtual casts) of the interiors of skulls. They try to infer behavior, including language and technical competence from the casts.
More ambitiously, neuroscientist Emiliano Bruner and psychologist Roberto Colom hope to probe the mind of Neanderthal man, who ranged across Eurasia from about 400,000 years ago through 40,000 years ago but now survives only in small percentages of the genome of the much larger modern human population.
From detailed studies, Bruner and Colom conclude:
This work proposes evolutionary changes in attention associated with the origin of the human genus and in Neanderthals, although only with Homo sapiens did this cognitive capacity attain a complexity which would profoundly revolutionize the behavior, technological complexity, and social structure of the species.CENIEH, “Could a Neanderthal meditate?” at Phys.org (June 30, 2022)
Although they don’t come right out and say it in so many words in the media release, they think that Neanderthal man was not smart enough to meditate. From the paper:
Taking into account that the parietal lobes are deeply involved in mental imaging, attention and awareness, and considering their possible changes in our own species, we can provocatively wonder whether or not Neandertals, as members of a distinct human lineage with our same brain size, were able to engage meditation, namely an activity that involves many of those elements and processes at once. We can suggest that Neandertals (and, to an even major extent, all the archaic human species) may have lacked the attentional ability to put forward a conscious and focused contemplative practice. At the same time we can also expect that, ironically, they were probably less prone to need it, relying on a cognition that was more rooted (and limited) to the present moment. [emphasis added]Emiliano Bruner, Roberto Colom, Can a Neandertal meditate? An evolutionary view of attention as a core component of general intelligence, Intelligence, Volume 93, 2022, 101668, ISSN 0160-2896, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2022.101668. The paper requires a fee or subscription.
But how sure can anyone be sure that Neanderthals couldn’t meditate, based on endocasts? Even the brains of recently deceased modern humans may not be especially informative. There is a dramatic saga associated with Albert Einstein’s preserved brain but, while it showed some differences from other brains, we don’t know how many people have shown such differences who lived and died without revolutionizing physics or anything else. And Einstein’s brain is preserved wetware, not a cast.
Here’s a bigger background problem: Many people function normally with split brains, a brain missing key components, or only half a brain, (or maybe less.) Recently, Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke star spoke of leading a normal life despite having “quite a bit” of brain missing due to an aneurysm.
We know that the brain is important for consciousness but the actual relationship between the brain and the mind is unclear for modern humans. Scholars call that the Hard Problem of Consciousness.
It’s reasonable to wonder how one could feel sure that Neanderthals couldn’t meditate, given the state of the evidence.
Another reason for treating the whole area with caution is science writer Michael Marshall’s recent disclosure that the idea that Neanderthals were not necessarily dumber than current humans makes some researchers uncomfortable. He reported recently at New Scientist that an archeologist told him that “archaeologists who don’t want Neanderthals to have painted have basically banned us from taking samples.”
Most modern humans don’t meditate and some say they’ve tried but can’t. So to be sure we would need to find a large group of living Neanderthals, none of whom can meditate.
We are not there, probably never will be, and sometimes it may be wiser to say we just don’t know.
Note: CENIEH is short for Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) headquartered in Spain.
Why is Neanderthal art considered controversial? It makes sense that whenever humans started to wonder about life, we started to create art that helps us think about it. Science writer Michael Marshall reports that some researchers are accused of banning others from taking samples that would prove a Neanderthal was the artist.
Researchers: Prolonged meditation alters the brain. The changes were detected mainly in the frontal and parietal lobes. Andrew Newberg and colleagues found changes in brain functional connectivity in participants in a seven-day Ignatian spirituality retreat in Pennsylvania.