Perhaps it is because we Homo sapiens are today the only remaining members of the various human species whose feet have trod this world, we believe ourselves to be completely unique in multiple ways. Of course, we think, we survived where others failed because we must have been the most collaborative, the most intelligent, the most creative of all human species. Of course.
Yet for every time we have come to feel so sure of ourselves about anything, it seems to me, science patiently provides the evidence and the rejoinder: “It's never that simple.” Case in point: the new findings about “Neandertal Minds,” in this issue's cover story by senior editor Kate Wong.
With heavy brows and stockier physiques than today's humans, Neandertals, who inhabited Eurasia between 350,000 and 39,000 years ago, nonetheless left intriguing clues that showed them to be far from the brutish simpletons of pop culture. Although they have long been thought to be mentally inferior to modern humans, they demonstrated the impressive ability to make skillful use of tools, to value aesthetically pleasing body ornaments such as feathers, to engrave caves with symbols.
What, then, truly distinguishes us? And how did humans continue when Neandertals went extinct? In search of answers, researchers are studying skulls and other evidence for clues about the brain features from which emerged the Neandertal mind. Their quest may yield some profound insights into our own heritage as well.
Our continued survival on Earth will require solving some interleaving challenges—among them how to manage energy, food and water at once to serve a growing population. In “A Puzzle for the Planet,” Michael E. Webber of the University of Texas at Austin explores efforts to come up with an integrated system for juggling those three essentials. When I attended last year's World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland, I was impressed that a record 23 sessions focused on climate, which will no doubt have been an important theme this year as well. Let's hope that our species' cleverness will be up to the challenge of determining—while there is still time—how to live sustainably on a finite planet.
Readers of Scientific American's award-winning journalism can now enjoy deeper insights into the research we cover, straight from the scientific journal articles themselves. In a one-year pilot, Nature Publishing Group (our parent company) will enable free content sharing for this magazine, along with some 100 white-listed journalists and media outlets, as well as for nature.com subscribers, for 49 owned journals, including the Nature family. An online link in a related story will give the reader access to the full journal article. The functionality on nature.com is powered by ReadCube (which is backed by a sister company, Digital Science).