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For the last 10 years or so, there has been an influx of studies published on revelations about the Neanderthal. The present discourse on the Neanderthal views it as being a much more sophisticated human ancestor than the one conceptualized at the turn of the century. Many experts are now pontificating about indicators revealed in studies that suggest Neanderthal effected its own culture, and many other studies have demonstrated that it was much more of a toolmaker than originally thought. In fact, one study, in particular, pointed out this year that some Neanderthals actually attempted dental care on themselves with crude scalpels fashioned out of stone.
The latest discovery comes from a new study that outright claims Neanderthals may not have experienced a very different childhood from what the average human being experiences today in several respects. “Neandertals have long been seen as the James Deans of human evolution—they grew up fast, died young, and became legends,” says Ann Gibbons, who writes for the magazine Science. “But now, a rare skeleton of a Neandertal child suggests that our closest cousins didn’t all lead such fast lives—and that our own long childhoods aren’t unique. The find may reveal how Neanderthals, like humans, had enough energy to grow bigger brains.”
The presiding theory, thus far, has posited that large brains take longer to develop, and this would mean that childhood persists longer for humans today simply because it takes longer for full maturation to be achieved. Chimpanzees, having much smaller brains than modern humans, are an example of the many organisms throughout the animal kingdom who mature faster than human beings and have that correlation with less brain matter to develop.
Christopher Joyce reported for the National Public Radio (NPR) in 2010 regarding this “James Dean” view of the Neanderthal, wherein he cited studies about Neanderthal skulls and wrote, “Like the ‘slow food’ movement, ‘slow growth’ gave complex brains more time to ‘cook,’ so to speak, and then learn all those things a fancy brain could learn.” The study on which Joyce reported was primarily focused on the teeth of Neanderthal in comparison with other hominid teeth. It was a significant takeaway in that context that hominid teeth exhibit self-explanatory indicators of their development from birth to the end of childhood when growth stops. Such indicators are the tooth-equivalent to tree rings.
Evidence now shows that the milestone reached in the study Joyce covered for NPR in 2010, however, may not be sufficient. The latest research has, in fact, had the advantage of examining more than teeth due to the discovery of a partial, adolescent, Neanderthal skeleton some 49,000 years old at El Sidrón Cave in the northern region of Spain. The observations regarding teeth did serve to measure the Neanderthal child’s age at approximately 7.7 years old, but Antonio Rosas led the research team toward the finding that the child’s skeleton developed at the same rate that children’s bodies mature today. They surmised this from measuring the development of the spine, skull, elbow, wrist, hand, and knee.
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Rosas is the chair of paleoanthropology at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain. He said: “We thought that our way of growing was really specific, very particular to our species. We realize now that this pattern of slow growth that allows us to have this big brain… is shared by different human species.” Neanderthals spread all over Europe over the course of some 200,000 years, and at one point, anthropological record shows that their population stretched as wide as to bridge Britain to Mongolia. Neanderthals have historically been typecast as dull, unintelligent brutes, yet more and more studies indicate that they were actually quite sophisticated.
Gibbons explains, “The team noted that the child’s brain had reached only about 87 percent of an average adult Neanderthal’s brain size, whereas modern human brains reach 90 percent of their adult size by age 5.” As such, Neanderthals likely matured slightly more slowly than modern humans, which is not consistent with the previous consensus. Experts are only challenging the study on the basis that this only looks at one Neanderthal skeleton from such a young age group and that this does not suffice as a representation of all adolescent Neanderthals.
“Neanderthal first molars typically grow at a faster rate than modern human molars… which makes this individual unusual,” says Tanya Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. She frequently focuses her research on the development of Neanderthal teeth and was, therefore, rather opinionated about the newly published study, which raises questions.
Gibbons also quotes two other experts on the subject, however—neurobiologist Christoph Zollikofer of the Swiss University of Zurich and anthropologist Marcia Ponce de León. “Also, the brains and bodies of adult Neanderthals vary in size, and this individual might have grown up to be a relatively small-brained Neanderthal,” Gibbons says, and this might also be worth considering.