Neanderthals were no strangers to good parenting
A team of archaeologists from the Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins at the University of York have challenged the traditional perspective that Neanderthal childhood was difficult, short, and dangerous. In a new study published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, the archaeologists argue that Neanderthal children experienced strong emotional attachments with their immediate social group, Neanderthals would care for sick children for years, and children played a key role in society, particularly in symbolic expression.
The research team drew upon cultural and social evidence to explore the experience of Neanderthal children. They found, for example, that Neanderthal child burials were more elaborate than those of adults, suggesting strong emotional bonds and the important role that children played in the social 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 epitomising Neanderthal decline,” said study lead Dr Penny Spikins. "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.”
One of the most famous Neanderthal child burials was uncovered in 1961 at Roc de Marsal. The grave was in a remarkable state of preservation, considering its age of 70,000 years. It consisted of the body of a child, approximately 3 years of age, who had been deposited in a natural depression in the ground, and apparently placed into the form of an arc, lying on its stomach, with a hand to its head and legs bent at 90 degrees, then covered with soil.
Reconstruction of the Roc de Marsal Neanderthal child on display at Musée National de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies. Artist and sculptor: Elizabeth Daynes. Photo credit: Don Hitchcock.
The study authors maintain that the belief that Neanderthal offspring had a harsh childhood comes from biological evidence which also focused on the rugged terrain, climate, and difficult living conditions. However, Dr Spikins explains that “there is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment."
Featured image: Depiction of a Neanderthal family. An exhibit at the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia. Photo source.