The 49,000-year-old remains of a Neanderthal child is rewriting what we thought we knew about human development. It turns out that the extinct human species grew at an incredibly slow pace, taking even longer to develop their brains than even we do, supporting the idea that they were highly intelligent and complex beings.
The finding Aalso upends what we thought we knew about childhood development, as it was believed that humans were the only species whose brains developed relatively slowly. All other primates and ancient human species to date show a far more rapid development of the brain, and previous work looking at Neanderthals suggested that the species would have been more similar to these.
Yet this latest analysis on the remains of an eight-year-old Neanderthal boy, published in Science, indicates that even by this stage his brain had not yet fully developed, meaning that it would appear that the ancient species actually grew slower than we do. As it takes a lot of energy to have such a delayed development, the speed at which this occurs is seen as a marker for how complex the brain would have eventually been.
The child has been dated to around 49,000 years old, and is one of the most complete adolescent Neanderthal skeletons discovered yet, giving researchers a unique insight into how the species grew. It shows that even by the age of eight, its brain was only 87.5 percent of the size of a typical adult, while in a human child of the same age, their brains tend to be around 95 percent of their eventual adult size.
There are other indicators that the young boy was still growing. Some of the vertebrae forming the backbone were still unfused, something that occurs around age six in humans, and the skull revealed a mix of baby and adult teeth, something that allowed the accurate aging of the boy at the time he died.
The finding simply reinforces the idea that Neanderthals were highly intelligent and complex beings. While researchers have known this for a long time, they are still battling to banish the old notion that the species was primitive and animalistic, scratching around in caves, despite all the evidence that proves they had language, made art, and possibly even practiced religion.
There are even suggestions that because their brain grew slower than ours, they may have actually been more intelligent than us. This, however, is most likely explained by the fact that on average Neanderthals were bigger than us, and therefore it took longer to grow.