I came across an interesting blog from a writer by the name of Kim Norton. It's interesting because she is working on a novel that deals with Neandertals. Now since I am writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece in which Neandertals play a very important part, I am always interested in other people's thoughts about them. I must admit, my thoughts about Neandertals are not quite the same as hers. She seems to think they either communicated in some nonverbal way, or else they could not "compartmentalize" thought "domains". Perhaps she's right. We really don't have any way of knowing for sure. And it seems to me that this way of viewing Neandertal brains and Neandertal thought, comes from the work of Derek Bickerton, who is, I think, a linguist. I believe he is the one who came up with the idea that Neandertals apparently couldn't cross "thought domains". And what I've read of his work, just doesn't seem convincing to me. But again, perhaps he may be right.
On the other hand, this view of Neandertals as somehow fundamentally "different" derives from some old, and mistaken, notions that somehow, Neandertals were "closer to apes" than "we" are. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this notion was dominant in part because Neandertals were the first non-modern human fossils ever to be discovered. Furthermore, the famous Neander Valley fossil, after which they were named, was discovered in 1856, three years before Darwin published his theory of evolution. Therefore, when confronted with remains that seemed to belong to a human, but at the same time, did not look like any human type the researchers were familiar with, they simply did not know what to do. This "ape" view of Neandertals was reinforced some fifty years later, when Marcellin Boule "described" the now famous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil from SW France. Boule made some pretty egregious mistakes; he either ignored, or did not know, the fact that the poor fellow had a rather bad case of arthritis, and had lost most of his teeth. All I can say, from a more "modern" perspective is, that you too would probably get arthritis if you had to live in a dank, damk cave during a cold and clammy Ice Age. But his fellows apparently thought well enough of him to bury him! The very fact that Neandertals frequently buried their dear departed, has allowed a lot of them to be preserved for posterity. And there is some evidence that they may have practiced some sort of rituals around these burials. In any case, as more was learned, the "brutish" image wore off--- to a certain extent.
Yet still there persists the idea that Neandertals were somehow fundamentally "different". Again, maybe this notion is correct. One difference, aside from the obvious anatomical ones, is that their populations were apparently quite small and scattered. Given the geographical area where they lived, and the time they lived in it, this isn't very surprising. One has only to consider people who live in northern Eurasian regions, and in northern North America. The populations of such groups as the Inuit aren't very large, either. In such severe and often fluctuating climatic conditions, resources may be scattered far and wide. The same was probably true for Neandertals.
But small populations are more severely impacted by such fluctuations than larger ones are, and this probably contributed to their disappearance, just as some small populations of "modern" humans have not survivied, or have strugggled to survive, into modern times. And this has nothing to do with "different" brains or "brutish"(whatever that means)behavior. Anybody so inclined can do the math and they will see how Neandertals --- or anybody else with a small population --- could disappear.
Which brings me back to the issue of language, etc. People who follow the Bickerton(and earlier workers') line of reasoning seem to be assuming that Neandertals were different from us in some fundamental way, because they disappeared. But such archaeological evidence as there is, doesn't seem to bear this out. They were perfectly competent hunters, thank you very much. They seem to have been able to organize the living spaces of their humble caves in some way which is familiar and recognizable to us "moderns", at least those among us who know something about hunter-gatherer traditional lifestyles. And, as I suggested above, there are tantalizing suggestions of rituals that probably brought "meaning" to their lives. Which suggests to me, at least, that their brains functioned pretty much the way ours do, and that they had a perfectly functional language, whatever that might have been.
How did they react to the presence of "moderns", when they arrived in Eurasia? We don't know. There are various ideas about that, which I will not go into at the moment. What "happened" to them? Again, we have no idea, and again, various ideas have been put forth. But their disappearance, in my opinion, was not due to some "inferiority" or "lack". They were "different" --- in some ways. But behaviorally, in the ways that "count"? I'm not so sure.