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Neanderthals no strangers to good parenting, study said

April 9, 2014
Courtesy of the University of York
and World Science staff

Ne­an­der­thal par­ents were more at­ten­tive than gen­er­ally sup­posed, a new study ar­gues, chal­leng­ing a tra­di­tion­al view that Ne­an­der­thal child­hood was hard, short and dan­ger­ous.

In re­search pub­lished in The Ox­ford Jour­nal of Ar­chae­o­lo­gy, Pen­ny Pikins of the Uni­vers­ity of York, U.K., and col­leagues say there is ev­i­dence that Ne­an­der­thals cared for their sick and in­jured chil­dren for months and of­ten years. The study of child buri­als, they add, shows that the young may have re­ceived par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion when they died, with gen­er­ally more elab­o­rate graves than old­er peo­ple.

Ne­an­der­thals set­tle around a camp­fire in this artist's con­cep­tion. In new re­search, arch­aeo­logists at the Uni­vers­ity of York, U.K.,  say there is ev­i­dence that Ne­an­der­thals cared for their sick and in­jured chil­dren for months and of­ten years. The study of child buri­als, they add, shows that the young may have re­ceived par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion when they died, with gen­er­ally more elab­o­rate graves than old­er peo­ple. (Image Cour­te­sy NASA)


Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple were rel­a­tives of mod­ern hu­mans whose an­ces­tors left Af­ri­ca ear­li­er than the an­ces­tors of mod­ern hu­mans, and who went on to live in Eu­rope, where they died out about 30,000 years ago.

Ne­an­der­thal groups are thought to have been small and rath­er iso­lat­ed, which would have af­fect­ed the so­cial and emo­tion­al con­text of child­hood, Spi­kins and col­leagues said. Liv­ing in rug­ged ter­rain, the re­search­ers ar­gued there would have been lit­tle pres­sure weigh­ing against a ten­den­cy to avoid out­side groups. The con­se­quence would have been an emo­tion­al fo­cus on close con­nec­tions with­in the group.

“The tra­di­tion­al view sees Ne­an­der­thal child­hood as un­usu­ally harsh, dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous. This ac­cords with pre­con­cep­tions about Ne­an­der­thal in­fe­ri­or­ity and an in­abil­ity to pro­tect chil­dren epit­o­miz­ing Ne­an­der­thal de­cline,” said Spi­kins, who has a new book, How Com­pas­sion Made Us Hu­man, due out lat­er this year. 

“Our re­search found that a close at­tach­ment and par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to chil­dren is a more plau­si­ble in­ter­preta­t­ion of the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence, ex­plain­ing an un­usu­al fo­cus on in­fants and chil­dren in bur­i­al, and set­ting Ne­an­der­thal sym­bol­ism with­in a con­text which is likely to have in­clud­ed chil­dren,” she went on.

“In­ter­preta­t­ions of high ac­ti­vity lev­els and fre­quent pe­ri­ods of scar­city form part of the ba­sis for this per­ceived harsh up­bring­ing. How­ev­er, such chal­lenges in child­hood may not be dis­tinc­tive from the nor­mal ex­pe­ri­ence of early Pa­le­o­lithic [Stone-Age] hu­man chil­dren, or con­tem­po­rary hunter-gatherers in par­tic­u­larly cold en­vi­ron­ments. There is a crit­i­cal dis­tinc­tion to be made be­tween a harsh child­hood and a child­hood lived in a harsh en­vi­ron­ment.”


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Neanderthal parents were more attentive than generally supposed, a new study argues, challenging a traditional view that Neanderthal childhood was hard, short and dangerous. In research published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Penny Pikins of the University of York, U.K., and colleagues say there is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years. The study of child burials, meanwhile, reveals that the young may have received particular attention when they died, with generally more elaborate graves than older people, according to the researchers. Neanderthal people were relatives of modern humans whose ancestors left Africa earlier than the ancestors of modern humans, and who went on to live in Europe, where they died out about 30,000 years ago. Neanderthal groups are thought to have been small and rather isolated, which would have affected the social and emotional context of childhood, Spikins and colleagues said. Living in rugged terrain, the researchers argued there would have been little pressure weighing against a tendency to avoid outside groups. The consequence would have been an emotional focus on close connections within the group. “The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as unusually harsh, difficult and dangerous. This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and an inability to protect children epitomizing Neanderthal decline,” said Spikins who has a new book, How Compassion Made Us Human, published later this year. “Our research found that a close attachment and particular attention to children is a more plausible interpretation of the archaeological evidence, explaining an unusual focus on infants and children in burial, and setting Neanderthal symbolism within a context which is likely to have included children,” she went on. “Interpretations of high activity levels and frequent periods of scarcity form part of the basis for this perceived harsh upbringing. However, such challenges in childhood may not be distinctive from the normal experience of early Paleolithic [Stone-Age] human children, or contemporary hunter-gatherers in particularly cold environments. There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment.”