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AI image representative of a Neanderthal child.	Source: robert/Adobe Stock

Neanderthal Child with Down’s Syndrome Received Compassionate Group Care

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An anatomical study of a piece of a Neanderthal child’s skull showed that this young person had been born with severe health challenges, of a type commonly associated with Down’s syndrome. Yet somehow this child survived to at least the age of six and likely somewhat longer than that, despite the perils and the challenges he or she would have faced.

For this to be possible the child would have needed regular care and attention, even beyond what the child’s mother would have been able to provide. According to the scientists involved in this new study, their discovery helps confirm the theory that Neanderthals were not only capable of empathy and compassion, but demonstrated these emotions in real-life circumstances.

Shared Childcare and Acts of Kindness in Neanderthal Society

The skull bone of the Neanderthal youngster with Down’s syndrome was recovered from a cavern known as Cova Negra, which is located near the town of Xàtiva in eastern Spain. Archaeologists have been exploring this cave for the last century, and it has continued to produce interesting finds that shed light on the habits and lifestyles of the Neanderthals who occupied it continuously from approximately 273,000 to 146,000 years ago.

While sifting through an assortment of animal remains excavated from Cova Negra, a team of researchers led by archaeologist Mercedes Conde Valverde from the University of Alcalá in Spain discovered the Neanderthal bone fragment. They eventually identified the piece of bone as having come from a skull, and they were fascinated to discover that it includes structures associated with the inner ear.

While the bone fragment wasn’t overly large, they were still able to create a 3D model of the skull it came from using CT scans. They quickly realized the skull was that of a Neanderthal and not a human, and that it came from a small child and not a full-grown adult.

Based on the 3D skull’s size and shape, the researchers estimated that the child was between six and 10 years old when they’d died. Most intriguingly, the image of the skull they generated showed some distinctive anomalies in the inner ear region, variations in architecture that would have inhibited functioning. A set of three tubes known as semicircular canals, which are linked to both hearing and balance, were malformed, and the child also had an unusually small cochlea, which is a part of the ear that is essential for proper hearing.


3D model of the inner ear of CN-46700 (Conde-Valverde et al./Science Advances)

3D model of the inner ear of CN-46700 (Conde-Valverde et al./Science Advances)

What this means is that the Neanderthal child “suffered from a congenital pathology of the inner ear, probably debilitating, and associated with Down syndrome,” the researchers wrote in an article about their study published in Science Advances.

“This child would have required care for at least 6 years, likely necessitating other group members to assist the mother in childcare.”

 A child with these anomalies of the inner ear would have had problems with hearing, balance, and mobility, and their Down’s syndrome likely would have impacted their cognitive abilities as well. Self-care of any type would have been struggle at all times, and they would have required extremely close monitoring as a result.

But in the ancient times in which this Neanderthal child lived, survival needs would have been urgent and time consuming. Everyone in the child’s group would have needed to spend a lot of time hunting or gathering food, including the child’s parents. Yet their childcare responsibilities would have been immense and constant, creating obvious difficulties.

So they would have needed help, presumably from friends or family members, or from the society at large.

Given this reality, the researchers believe their discoveries are:

“fully compatible with the idea previously advocated by other authors that caregiving and collaborative parenting occurred together in Neanderthals and that both prosocial behaviors were part of a broader social adaptation of high selective value that must have been very similar to that of our species.”

Neanderthal mother and child (Anthropos Pavilion, Brno, Czech Republic) (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Neanderthal mother and child (Anthropos Pavilion, Brno, Czech Republic) (CC BY-NC 2.0)

It’s Not Always About Survival

In an interview with New Scientist, Penny Spikins, an archaeologist from the University of York who studies human origins, supports the conclusions of Mercedes Conde Valverde and her colleagues.

“Neanderthals were clearly caring for people in their group, and this is a lovely example that really brings home how much they cared,” she stated.

According to Spikins, there is other evidence of Neanderthal compassion and unselfishness. As an example, she mentioned the discovery of the remains of an incapacitated adult male Neanderthal in Shanidar cave in Iraq. This individual had suffered severe physical damage to his limbs and skull but had apparently lived for another 10-15 years despite his condition. Such a thing would not have been possible without the care and assistance of loved ones or comrades, as is the case with the Neanderthal child with Down’s syndrome.

“Some authors believe that caregiving took place between individuals able to reciprocate the favor, while others argue that caregiving was produced by a feeling of compassion related to other highly adaptive prosocial behaviors,” the researchers wrote in their Science Advances article, acknowledging the two generally accepted theories to explain mutual aid in ancient societies. They then point out that the first theory doesn’t apply to children with severe health issues, since “children have a very limited possibility to reciprocate the assistance.”

Amplifying this observation, Spikins noted that even when grown up, a child with severe impairment related to Down’s syndrome wouldn’t have been able to contribute much to the group’s survival. Nevertheless, she said, people with Down’s syndrome are often “tremendously affectionate and very sociable, and that counts for a lot in these kind of small-scale societies.”

Since ancient humans and Neanderthals were so closely related, enough so that they could interbreed, there were undoubtedly many shared traits that connected the two species. Vulnerability to Down’s syndrome was one, but it seems that empathy and compassion should be included on the list of these traits as well, since it is clear Neanderthals took care of their own even when there was no direct survival advantage in doing so.

Top image: AI image representative of a Neanderthal child.      Source: robert/Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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