What has been called a “mind blowing” study that was conducted on the teeth of Neanderthals has concluded that children suffered through brutal winters and difficult illnesses during their formative years in ancient Europe, which is something that did not occur with more modern humans after comparative research was undertaken.
As Ars Technica have reported, scientists have researched heavy metals and oxygen isotope ratios that were contained in the tooth enamel of young Neanderthal children from the southeast of France who lived 250,000 years ago and discovered that these children lived through dangerous winters and seasons that were much more varied than they are today.
Since tooth enamel is created in extremely thin layers, scientists are able to learn much about the early lives of humans from the chemical traces found within them, and in this case Griffith University’s Tanya Smith and a team of scientists were able to study the tooth enamel of two Neanderthal children that had lived at the Payre site in France.
The age in which the children had lived was determined by conducting thermoluminescence testing on burnt pieces of flint which were found at the site, and the tooth enamel perfectly preserved details about the first three years of life for these young Neanderthals.
To learn more about the environment that these Neanderthal children would have lived in, oxygen plants that were consumed and water that was drank can be analyzed by simply studying the ratio of the oxygen-18 isotope to oxygen-16, which is determined by factors like evaporation, temperature and precipitation. If it higher ratios of oxygen-18 are indicated, this would show that conditions were generally dry and warm with more pronounced evaporation.
The Neanderthals studied at the Payre site in France were found to have lived during a time when winters were much more difficult than today, according to Smith.
“This is particularly germane for Neanderthals, who survived extreme Eurasian environmental variation and glaciations, mysteriously going extinct during a cool interglacial stage.”
After analyzing the teeth of the two Neanderthal children, scientists found that during the first three years of their lives they would have suffered from either malnutrition or serious illnesses at times, which can be spotted by their enamel. For instance, Payre 6, the first Neanderthal child, showed that before they had turned two years of age, they had spent one week not long before either starving or sick.
Payre 336, the second Neanderthal child, also went through a period of either illness or starvation during the winter before the tooth enamel was set that lasted for approximately two weeks, followed by another bout during the next autumn. Previous research has shown that these conditions may be quite normal and that Neanderthal children suffered especially harsh winters, leading up to spring.
The new study that determined through the study of tooth enamel that Neanderthal children were prone to serious illnesses and possible malnutrition during more pronounced winter months has been published in Science Advances.