Neanderthals’ lives weren’t more violent than humans’, study suggests

Neanderthals are commonly thought to have relied on dangerous, close-range hunting techniques, using non-projectile weapons like the thrusting spears depicted here.

For years, researchers analyzing traumatic injuries found on Neanderthal fossils believed they had lived dangerous, violent lives.

But a new study reveals that early modern humans and Neanderthals both suffered the same level of head trauma.

Like a recent study dispelling the hunched caveman stereotype, this new research suggests that Neanderthals didn’t invite injury through inferior hunting techniques or dangerous lifestyles. Instead, the fossils of Neanderthals and humans show that life between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago was dangerous for all.

Previous studies of Neanderthals usually compared them with the modern humans of today.

But the researchers on this new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, used a quantitative database of recorded trauma in 295 Neanderthal bones and 541 human bones. The human bones, from Upper Paleolithic modern humans, had the same level of preservation and shared similar aspects of their environment in Western Eurasia with Neanderthals. The modeling also accounted for gender, age at the time of death and geography.

The researchers discovered through their analysis that males were injured more frequently than females among both humans and Neanderthals — probably because of gender-specific behaviors, activities and division of labor.

“For me the most important impact of the study is the better understanding of Neanderthals,” Katerina Harvati, study author and professor at the University of Tübingen’s Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, wrote in an email. “This study elucidates the population rates head trauma of Neanderthals compared to those of Upper Paleolithic modern humans, which have implications for their assumed behavior.”

Neanderthals were believed to have sustained head trauma due to violent social behavior, their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Ice Age environments and attacks by large carnivorous animals. Museum models show them stabbing or thrusting with spears at close range to their prey, causing close confrontations during hunting.

Harvati said that because of these findings, those commonly cited behaviors should be reconsidered.

“Our results suggest that Neanderthal lifestyles were not more dangerous than those of our ancestors, early modern Europeans,” she said.

One surprising difference was age-related. Though traumatic injuries spanned ages for humans, Neanderthals were more likely to have died before reaching 30. This suggests that Neanderthals were either more likely to be injured at a younger age or more likely to die after being injured.

Perhaps these differences provide insight as to why humans had an advantage over Neanderthals, suggests Marta Mirazón Lahr, author of an accompanying News and Views article. Lahr, in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, did not participate in the research.

Though the research team only looked at head trauma, studying other injuries preserved in the fossils and how those injuries might have happened could shed more light on behavior, activities or social norms that have eluded us about Neanderthals and our ancestors, Lahr said.

Harvati said the team is “planning to extend our analyses to the rest of the skeleton, but also to later samples, for example, later Upper Paleolithic specimens, so to gain better insights into possible trends of injury rates through time.”

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