Neanderthal Child Development Was Faster than Humans, Study Reveals
Neanderthal development was faster than the maturation process in modern humans according to the latest study. This means Neanderthal children were able to reach physical maturity at earlier ages, thereby improving their odds of survival in the challenging environmental conditions of the Pleistocene era.
These conclusions have emerged from a study of Neanderthal baby teeth recovered from a fossil site in Croatia. Scientists determined these teeth had grown to sufficient size to erupt from the jawbone a few months earlier than the teeth of a typical human child. Faster Neanderthal development would have enabled Neanderthal boys and girls to begin eating solid foods at younger ages, allowing their physical development to proceed at an accelerated pace.
The recent study, based on five baby teeth found at the Krapina site in Croatia, revealed that Neanderthal child development was faster than the maturation process in modern humans. (Patrick Mahoney et al / The Royal Society)
The Five Krapina Baby Teeth and Neanderthal Development
As detailed in an article released by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, an international team of scientists performed an extensive analysis of five baby teeth recovered from the Krapina Neanderthal archaeological site in Croatia dating from the Pleistocene period. This collapsed cave contains fossilized bones from as many as 80 deceased Neanderthals, making it the most “populated” Neanderthal site found anywhere in the world.
Dating procedures have established that the five baby teeth came from three Neanderthal infants that lived and died between 120,000 and 130,000 years ago. They were intact and exceptionally well-preserved, making them ideal for this groundbreaking study.
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“The relative development speed of human and Neanderthal teeth is a hot topic. Some say that the latter develop faster, but others argue that they fall within the range of human variation,” study co-author Helen Liversidge said in a Natural History Museum of London news article about the new discovery. Professor Liversidge is a dental anthropologist from Queen Mary University and a scientific associate of the Museum.
“This is the first time we've had a baby Neanderthal tooth that we can infer from the root growth whether it erupted earlier or not,” she explained. “We found that it looks as if the teeth are growing more quickly and their baby teeth were erupting earlier than in present day humans.”
Liversidge and her colleagues took high-energy X-ray scans of the five baby teeth, to reveal more details about their structures and growth patterns. They tracked growth rates by measuring enamel layers, which are lain down one on top of another on the crown of the tooth as it grows. There is a distinctive marker on an emerging baby tooth that shows how much of the growth occurred before birth and how much after, which makes it possible to accurately calculate the pace of tooth development.
After analyzing the X-ray images, the researchers found that the Neanderthal baby incisors (front teeth) had grown much more rapidly than in typical human infants. Neanderthal baby molars (back teeth) developed more quickly as well and were therefore better prepared for more vigorous chewing action at an earlier age.
It seems Neanderthal children experienced notable tooth growth between three and five months earlier than human children. This means their first teeth would have erupted from the jaw and been visible at about four months of age, with the final teeth developing by seven months.
The recent Neanderthal maturation study suggests that Neanderthal lifetimes were short, so they had to develop faster. (Olena / Adobe Stock)
Neanderthal Development and Maturation Was Faster Because
Faster dental Neanderthal development suggests earlier weaning from the mothers’ milk, and a quicker adoption of a more varied and diverse diet. Neanderthal children would have eaten the same type of diet as an adult Neanderthal, which included red meat, seafood, mushrooms, and a broad range of plant foods. This would have aided physical growth and brain development, allowing Neanderthal kids to become more physically hardy and more adaptable at younger ages in comparison to Homo sapiens children.
This rapid Neanderthal development may have been related to the relative shortness of the Neanderthal lifespan. Previous studies have revealed that 85 percent of Neanderthals died before the age of 40. It isn’t known if this was caused by harsh environmental conditions, vulnerability to disease, or genetic factors that caused the species to age rapidly. It may have been a combination of such factors.
Whatever the reasons for their reduced longevity, Neanderthals would have had to breed prolifically to keep their population numbers at a sustainable and survivable level. Faster childhood development implies a more rapid ascent into adolescence and adulthood, which would have made it easier for Neanderthals to maintain high birth rates.
Overall, the recent study suggests that Neanderthal development was faster in childhood than the maturation process of modern human kids. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
Solving Historical Mysteries, One Discovery at a Time
The discovery of early Neanderthal tooth development is significant. But questions about the physical characteristics and evolution of the species remain.
“It's very difficult to say if the Krapina samples are representative as we've only got a few teeth,” Helen Liversidge pointed out. 'Historic samples give us a bit of information on how to interpret these fossil teeth, but we would need more samples to produce a clearer picture.'
The samples examined were limited in number, raising the possibility that Neanderthals living in different areas of Eurasia may have developed differently.
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One of the biggest remaining questions is how Neanderthal characteristics may have changed over time. For example, the fossil record reveals that the size of Neanderthal craniums declined as the species aged and moved closer to their eventual extinction.
It’s possible that shrinking cranium size meant the pace of the species’ development as a whole had slowed down. As a consequence, the baby teeth of Neanderthals that lived and died 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, near the end of that species’ time on Earth, may not have developed as rapidly as those of their ancient ancestors.
To find definitive answers to such questions, researchers will have to wait until archaeologists find more samples of well-preserved Neanderthal baby teeth to examine, which they most likely will at some point in the future.
Top image: A Neanderthal boy looking at his reflection not knowing that Neanderthal development was faster than that of modern humans. Some kids have it easier! Source: EmotionPhoto / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde