New analysis of a Neanderthal boy’s skull suggests that our ancestors from about 50,000 years ago had come of age much like modern children do, albeit with a few differences.
The Smithsonian recalled that the discovery of the child’s skull within the El Sidron limestone caves in Spain had initially “raised more questions than answers.” The skull was estimated to be close to 50,000-years-old, but scientists found it peculiar that it resembled that of a modern-day boy. It was truly an interesting fossil, according to study co-author Luis Rios, a paleontologist at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid. But as more bones from the skeleton were uncovered, things gradually became clearer for Rios and his colleagues.
There were multiple reasons why the skeleton was so interesting to study, starting with the fact that it was a child skeleton, therefore allowing researchers to further understand how Neanderthal children grew up and became adults, and compare their coming of age to how modern humans do the same. The Neanderthal boy’s skull also came with an unusually intact and well-preserved jawbone and set of teeth, which helped the researchers estimate the boy’s age at the time of his death.
Based on analysis of the Neanderthal boy’s first left upper molar, the researchers were able to determine that the child had died between the ages of 7.61- and 7.78-years-old. They were also able to use canine tooth size and bone structure to determine that the child was indeed male. Most importantly, however, they determined that Neanderthal children matured in a similar way to how modern human children grow into adulthood.
“The comparison…indicate(s) that there was no noticeable difference in the growth and maturation of this Neanderthal juvenile in comparison with modern human juveniles,” said Rios at a press conference earlier this week, as quoted by Gizmodo Australia.
Although the Neanderthal boy’s skull did offer some clues that suggest a similar path from boyhood to adulthood to that of modern humans, there were two major differences observed by Rios and his fellow researchers. According to the Smithsonian, CT scans of the boy’s spine showed that there were specific vertebrae in his spine that had not yet fused at the time of his passing. These vertebrae would have already been fused once a modern-day child reached the age of 5 or 6.
The second difference suggests that brain development might have taken longer in Neanderthals than it does in present-day humans. While modern 7-year-olds have about 95 percent the brain size of an average adult, the Neanderthal boy’s skull fossil hinted that his brain was at about 87.5 percent the size of an adult Neanderthal brain.
According to Gizmodo Australia, the above finding goes against previous research, which suggested that Neanderthal brains had grown very quickly during the formative years. But the slower growth rate hinted at by the new research doesn’t necessarily mean that Neanderthal children didn’t have the cognitive abilities of their modern 7-year-old counterparts – instead, it simply means Neanderthal brains evolved differently, and that more research might need to be done to fully understand the behavior and cognitive development of juvenile Neanderthals.
Meanwhile, the researchers stressed that there are limits to the conclusions that could be made from the new study, according to The Guardian. Although the analysis of the Neanderthal boy’s skull and the rest of his skeleton yielded some interesting observations, Rios warned that making hypotheses about the social and cognitive aspects of Neanderthal youth could be risky, as only one skeleton has been analyzed so far.
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