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What is the Neanderthal Theory of Autism?

written by: Christina Garabedian • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 5/19/2011

What cognitive similarities support the Neanderthal theory of autism? What role does autism possibly play in the past? Read on to learn more.

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    Cognitive Differences in Autism

    In the past, there was not much information on Autism, and it was sort of a misunderstood disorder. With more scientific advances, we are now finding out more about autism spectrum disorder through ongoing research. Now, archaeologists are studying autism and population differences in cognition. The Neanderthal theory of autism seems to be a heavily discussed topic. Let's take a closer look at the cognitive similarities of those with autism and that of the Neanderthal.

    One of the diagnostics criteria for autism is antisocial behavior, but in more recent years there has been more of a focal point on Asperger's Syndrome in which language is used adequately and there is not much social exclusion. Often those with Asperger's have trouble empathizing with others but are able to predict another's behavior through past conversations that they have seen or had. As the person with Asperger's learns what is acceptable in society, their behaviors are much different from those with out it.

    Dr. Temple Grandin was diagnosed with severe autism and has effectively incorporated herself within society. Although Temple lacks empathy and has speech delays, she has consistently worked to improve her language skills through therapy and now is a published author, doctor and speaker at many autism events.

    Those with Asperger's usually perform extremely well with predictable system, this why many work in engineering or with computers in some capacity. Their capacity to recognize laws or complex data patterns makes them a very important member of society.

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    Roles of the Autistic

    We can go as far to say that in the past there were contrasting social roles for those that were considered "different". There has been no documentation in who had autism in the past because it did not exist as a diagnosis, but one can say that small societies played particular social roles. Autistic traits could be viewed as great for understanding nature and creating precise and complex tools for hunter-gathers.

    G. B. Shaw quotes

    "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." Rejman (2005)

    Fitzgerald states that

    "All human evolution was driven by slightly autistic Asperger’s and autistic people. The human race would still be sitting around in caves chattering to each other if it were not for them’"(quoted in Griffin 2006: 27).

    Some archaeologists feel they do need to take autism into consideration when trying to make sense of prehistoric societies and some believe that the success of modern humans is due largely to the fact that their were others out there with autistic characteristics.

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    Assortative Mating Theory

    Usually those with common interest and social compatibility would find mates like themselves to be with. Therefore it is suggested that with each child that is born the autism could be passed producing more extreme forms as time went on. Austim is hereditary and this is highly possible.

    Baron-Cohen’s ‘associative mating’ theory is supported by evidence of high rates of autism among engineers and within families of engineers and those working in information technology (Baron-Cohen et al 1997; 1998) and geographic ‘hot spots’ of diagnosed severe autism at Cambridge, MIT and Stamford.

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    Population Spread into Other Countries

    Slowly we have adapted over the ages, and developed new skills to survive in a changing world. We have prolonged life by finding medicine and vaccinations. As time went on the "modern" behavior spread, as did people. The "modern" behavior even found it's way to under-developed countries who did not have much technology.

    Mitochondrial DNA evidence shows that a population increase out of Africa with a marked development and difference to that of Neanderthals when modern humans spread throughout Europe around 40-30,000 years ago.

    As stated in Cambridge Archaeological Journal

    It is argued that a key limitation to interpretations has been the assumption that modern humans can be characterized by a single ‘modern mind’ against which previous species might be compared. Much as there is no one single type of olfactory system that could be the ‘norm’ but instead a range of normal genetically coded variation in biology within populations (Weiss 2007), there may be no single ‘normal’ mind but a range of interrelated variations. A model of the origins of modern human behavior as based on cognitive differences, potentially maintained through social mechanisms, might provide a better explanation for many of the characteristics of the archaeological record.

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    Neanderthal Behavior

    The difference between modern human and Neanderthal behavior are not always black and white. Neanderthals would bury their dead and their use of personal ornaments suggests a sophisticated social life and not much different from the modern human.

    The personal ornamentation, such as in the Chatelperronian at St Cesaire, might aid in this analysis. Neanderthal society was "different", socially, technologically, economically and population spread to that of modern humans. The personal ornaments may have been an idea that was taken from modern humans through communication.

    It is speculated in the Neanderthal theory of autism that those diagnosed on the autism spectrum are a result of combining two species of archaic humans who were separate for almost a million years. One could debate if they were a separate species at all.

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    Resources

    1. Mellars, P. 2006a. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386

    2. Spikins, P. (2009) Autism, the integrations of ‘difference’ and the origins of modern human behaviour. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19 (2). pp. 179-201.

    3. S Baron-Cohen (2006) Two new theories of autism; hyper-systemising and assortative mating. Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge Arch Dis Child 2006;91:2-5 doi:10.1136/adc.2005.075846