Cave bodies reveal good parenting skills and caring side of Neanderthals

By Ben Miller | 10 April 2014

Neanderthal children played with hand axes and had strong bonds with their parents, say researchers

A photo of skeletal remains in a dark brown cave pit
An infant burial from Dederiyeh Cave, Syria, with a triangular stone at their heart and stone slab above their head© Takeru Akazawa
Neanderthals lived in small groups, cared for the disabled, elderly and sick and engaged playfully with their offspring during lengthy infancies and childhoods, according to new research dispelling traditional preconceptions about early man.

Studying 12 bodies found at El Sidrón, a cave in northern Spain where an entire Neanderthal group died of a natural catastrophe which could have been a rock fall, investigators from the University of York say earth’s ancient inhabitants would have only travelled long distances when their resources became particularly scarce.

A photo of two large flint jagged prehistoric toys
This toy hand axe, found in Foxhall Road, Kent, dates from around 250,000 years ago© Mark White
Their rates of growth during childhood were markedly more pronounced than today’s children, which would have made newborns vulnerable to injury and death. But the findings stress the distinction between the harsh conditions Neanderthals lived in and assumptions that their young may have faced difficult upbringings.

“The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as unusually harsh, difficult and dangerous,” says Dr Penny Spikins, whose new book, How Compassion Made us Human, will consider the importance of altruism to evolution when it is published later this year.

“This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and an inability to protect children epitomising Neanderthal decline.

“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.”

Spikins and her team suggest that mothers could have played peek-a-boo and games involving throwing and swinging with their children, although the high “energy footprint” of the species meant families probably remained in small groups.

A child found at Sierra de Atapuerca – a mountain region in Spain – showed evidence of being supported despite suffering from craniosynostosis and probable mental retardation, while a man of “at least” 50 appeared to have been helped through “extreme walking difficulties.”

Other individuals were found to have spent decades coping with severe arm and leg injuries and head wounds, possibly using medicinal plants to soothe their frailties.

Their young were given careful burials in noticeably elaborate graves, suggesting children held an important place in society and would have been “securely attached” to their household, with symbolic toys pointing to “internal cohesiveness” being favoured ahead of “external links”.

Flint knapping by children, found at the Arcy-sur-Cure caves in Burgundy, provided “tantalising” archaeological evidence, according to the archaeologists.

The naive youthfulness of these cherubic craftspeople was revealed by the “pointless and frustrated battering” of spots where flaking could not be achieved.

Four miniature hand axes from pits in southern Britain were interpreted as objects retouched to make toys for children, possibly to teach them skills and axe-making as “emotional self-control”.

The findings have been published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

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