Scientists have begun to study the bones of a Neanderthal child, providing interesting insights into how members of the extinct human subspecies lived and grew. The results were published in the September 22, 2017 issue of Science.
Antonia Rosas, from Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, summarized their findings by noting that “Neandertals and modern humans are following the same growth pattern, but we have detected some subtle differences.”
Neanderthals are an extinct subspecies of humans which lived primarily in Europe; they lived at the same time as anatomically modern humans, who were their distant cousins. Despite their stereotypical depiction, these days researchers believe that Neanderthals were as intelligent as other primitive humans. Furthermore, genetic research suggests that they may have interbred with modern humans, resulting in all or most non-Africans having a small amount of Neanderthal ancestry. As such, the issue of how similar or different they were from both ancient and modern humans is one of great interest to scientists.
The skeleton in question is 49,000 years old and was found in El Sidron, an archaeological site in northern Spain. Researchers believe the subject to be a boy due to the robust nature of the bones. Christopher Dean, who works for the University College London, estimated him to be between seven and eight years old based on the growth lines in slices of one of the molars.
Some computerized tomography scans were done on the bones, including the skeleton’s skull, teeth, elbow, spine, hand, wrist, and knee. Overall, the pattern of growth was similar to that of a modern child, but not as developed given his age. For example, the center of the boy’s spine was not yet fused, a process which normally occurs between ages 4 and 6 in a modern human. Also, his brain would have only been about 87.5 percent the size of an adult Neanderthal’s, while a modern child’s brain is about 95 percent that of an adult’s.
This leads the researchers to believe that Neanderthal children grew in similar patterns to modern children, but at a slower rate.
“Growth and development in this juvenile Neandertal fit the typical features of human ontogeny, where there is slow somatic growth between weaning and puberty that may offset the cost of growing a large brain,” they wrote, adding that prolonging this allowed “an opportunity for shifts in both the rate and timing of brain growth.”