Analysis of the skeleton of a Neanderthal boy shows that long childhoods aren't unique to modern humans.
Researcher Antonio Rosas with the Neanderthal boy’s skeleton [Photo by Andrés Díaz-CSIC Communication]
About 49,000 years ago, a young Neanderthal died some months before he turned eight. His bones remained largely intact all throughout the millennia, giving scientists a way to look into how young Neanderthals grew up as compared to young Homo sapiens. Modern humans have long childhoods, something which scientists thought is what allows us to have big brains. Scientists also thought that our species was the only one that had a long process of development, but new evidence shows that they may be wrong.
This also shows that we may have been unfair in our depictions of our Neanderthal cousins. We've portrayed them to be slow and brutish, but that's unlikely to be the case. It's more possible that our Neanderthal cousins were more refined and introspective than we might expect. This, however, shouldn't really come as a surprise.
The skeleton of the young Neanderthal [Image by the Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC]
There's already some pretty strong evidence that Neanderthals weren't the dumb, grunting brutes we portrayed them to be. They were advanced enough to have been able to use fire, but that's not all. In fact, they buried their dead, used plants for medicinal purposes, and were even capable of planning and building stone structures. Thus, Neanderthals were more “human-like” than we thought.
A cave system called El Sidrón in the northwest of Spain contains around 2,500 Neanderthal remains that date back to roughly 49,000 years ago. Researchers singled out the relatively complete remains of a young Neanderthal boy designated as J1. J1 had been about four feet tall, right handed, and he apparently mimicked the elders of his community by holding things with his mouth as well as his hands. The remains don't show signs of serious illnesses, though cut marks into the bone indicate the possibility that his flesh may have been cannibalized after his death.
Examination of the boy's molars led researchers to conclude that he had been about 7.7 years old when he died. He, apparently, looked like any seven- or eight-year-old boy today, and he had been growing like a modern boy as well. The boy's skull, however, is what's most interesting to the researchers.
The inside of the El Sidrón caves [Photo by Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC]
According to the findings, the inner surface of the boy's skull showed signs of pressure from a growing brain. The size of J1's brain was about 88% of an adult Neanderthal's brain in size. Let's compare that with modern human brains. Our brains are fully grown before we hit the age of seven. Thus, J1's brain—and the brains of other Neanderthal children—grew more slowly than ours.
However, there's one glaring problem with these findings—the fact that one individual makes up the entire sample size. This kind of sample size, unsurprisingly, isn't really enough to make such conclusions. According to paleoanthropologists Marcia Ponce de León and Christoph Zollikofer, Neanderthals don't actually have just one standard fully grown brain size. After all, Ponce de León and Zollikofer point out, some adult Neanderthals had brains smaller than J1's. Some younger Neanderthals, meanwhile, had brains larger than J1's. What the Neanderthal boy in El Sidrón definitely shows us, however, is that Neanderthals also had long childhoods, just like we did.
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