Skull damage suggests Neandertals led no more violent lives than humans

Some 200 skulls show similar rates of damage between humans and our evolutionary cousins

Bruce Bower

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111318 bb skeleton featNeandertals (skeleton at left) experienced head injuries about as often as Stone Age or later humans (skeleton at right) did, a new study finds.

Neandertals are shaking off their reputation as head bangers.

Our close evolutionary cousins experienced plenty of head injuries, but no more so than late Stone Age humans did, a study suggests. Rates of fractures and other bone damage in a large sample of Neandertal and ancient Homo sapiens skulls roughly match rates previously reported for human foragers and farmers who have lived within the past 10,000 years, concludes a team led by paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Males suffered the bulk of harmful head knocks, whether they were Neandertals or ancient humans, the scientists report online November 14 in Nature.

Our results suggest that Neandertal lifestyles were not more dangerous than those of early modern Europeans,” Harvati says.

Until recently, researchers depicted Neandertals, who inhabited Europe and Asia between around 400,000 and 40,000 years ago, as especially prone to head injuries. Serious damage to small numbers of Neandertal skulls fueled a view that these hominids led dangerous lives. Proposed causes of Neandertal noggin wounds have included fighting, attacks by cave bears and other carnivores and close-range hunting of large prey animals.

Paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis coauthored an influential 1995 paper arguing that Neandertals incurred an unusually large number of head and upper-body injuries. Trinkaus recanted that conclusion in 2012, though. All sorts of causes, including accidents and fossilization, could have resulted in Neandertal skull damage observed in relatively small fossil samples, he contended (SN: 5/27/17, p. 13).

Harvati’s study further undercuts the argument that Neandertals engaged in a lot of violent behavior, Trinkaus says.

Still, the idea that Neandertals frequently got their heads bonked during crude, close-up attacks on prey has persisted, says paleoanthropologist David Frayer of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The new report highlights the harsh reality that, for Neandertals and ancient humans alike, “head trauma, no matter the level of technological or social complexity, or population density, was common.”

Harvati’s group analyzed data for 114 Neandertal skulls and 90 H. sapiens skulls. All of these fossils were found in Eurasia and date to between around 80,000 and 20,000 years ago. One or more head injuries appeared in nine Neandertals and 12 ancient humans. After statistically accounting for individuals’ sex, age at death, geographic locations and state of bone preservation, the investigators estimated comparable levels of skull damage in the two species. Statistical models run by the team indicate that skull injuries affected an average of 4 percent to 33 percent of Neandertals, and 2 percent to 34 percent of ancient humans.

Estimated prevalence ranges that large likely reflect factors that varied from one locality to another, such as resource availability and hunting conditions, the researchers say.

Neandertals with head wounds included more individuals under age 30 than observed among their human counterparts. Neandertals may have suffered more head injuries early in life, the researchers say. It’s also possible that Neandertals died more often from head injuries than Stone Age humans did.

Researchers have yet to establish whether Neandertals experienced especially high levels of damage to body parts other than the head, writes paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazón Lahr of the University of Cambridge in a commentary in Nature accompanying the new study.

J. Beier et al. Similar cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humansNature. Published online November 14, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0696-8.

M.M. Lahr. The not-so-dangerous lives of NeanderthalsNature. Published online November 14, 2018. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07343-8.