<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Roboto%3A300%2C400%2C500%2C700%7CRoboto+Slab%3A400%2C700">Neanderthal teeth reveal their human-like childhood - Filthy Monkey Men

Neanderthals lived in an alien world, scraping by in a Europe full of lions, rhinos, and giraffes1. Despite this weird environment, and having some weird adaptations to it, many aspects of the Neanderthals were quite human-like. Including, it turns out, their childhood 2.

Tooth be told

This revelation comes from 2 Neanderthals found at Payre, France. Their owners’ childhood occurred around 250,000 years ago when the climate was cooler and drier than today, although still positively tropical compared to a preceding ice age2.

So what was it like to be a kid back then? Well, it turns out teeth are great at telling us.

See, you are what you eat. Or drink. Or do. Obviously, all the food and drink you have is made up of elements. However, different food sources have different isotopes of these elements. Thus, by tracking what isotopes wind up in the Neanderthal teeth we know where they were getting their food from.

This is called stable isotope analysis kid’s teeth are especially good for it. This is because they’re constantly growing and so every few days a new, microscopic layer of tooth forms; like tree-rings. Thus, by examining these tiny growth patterns, Dr Tanya Smith and her colleagues were able to get a picture of what these kids were up to on a day-to-day level2.

A Neanderthal teeth, magnified with key layers marked by a dotted white line. The numbers next to the lines show the number of days after birth that layer was formed2.

This high-resolution data provides a fascinating glimpse into what Neanderthal childhood was like more than 250,000 years ago. In fact, we can even pinpoint exact moments in these ancient peoples’ lives.

Like the time some of these kids spent a week consmuing an unhealthy amount of lead.

Lead-laced childhood

The 2 kids Smith et al. were examining lived a few thousand years apart. Despite living so far apart, their childhood shared some key similarities. Like consuming something with a high amount of lead in2.

Each Neanderthals’ exposure pattern was slightly different. One had elevated levels for almost a year starting when they were 9 months old. Fortunately, this exposure doesn’t seem to be responsible for lasting health problems in either child2.

Lead levels in tooth layers, highlighting spikes2.

It would still probably be healthier if they never consumed any lead, but we should be grateful they did. As a result, we gain a depper insight into their childhood.

Notably, their pattern of lead consumption don’t match what Smith et al. were expecting if this lead came from breastmilk. Instead, they were eating or drinking something else in the environment. Which is kind of a big deal, since it means these Neanderthals were expanding their diet at around 9 months old. This just so happens to be the age humans start doing that as well2.

Of course, at this point, these Neanderthals were simply supplementing their diet and were still breastfeeding. Weaning didn’t come until later when the kids were around 2 and a half. Crucially, this also happens to be around the same age humans start weaning in natural circumstances2.

So it seems that whilst the Neanderthals were unlucky to drink some lead, we should be grateful they did. It reveals that their childhood shared some key similarities with ours, with them beginning to supplement their diet and later wean at around the same ages as modern humans.

We’re different species, separated by hundreds of thousand of years. Yet our childhood wasn’t as different as that might lead you to believe.


  1. Smith, G.M., 2015. Neanderthal megafaunal exploitation in Western Europe and its dietary implications: a contextual reassessment of La Cotte de St Brelade (Jersey). Journal of human evolution78, pp.181-201.
  2. Smith, T.M., Austin, C., Green, D.R., Joannes-Boyau, R., Bailey, S., Dumitriu, D., Fallon, S., Grün, R., James, H.F., Moncel, M.H. and Williams, I.S., 2018. Wintertime stress, nursing, and lead exposure in Neanderthal children. Science advances4(10), p.eaau9483.

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David Bump · 11th January 2019 at 2:07 am

Some say the Neanderthals were a sub-species, and not only did we overlap in time, there were cases of interbreeding, so this is not so much surprising as it is an interesting and helpful expansion on what we already know.

    Adam Benton · 11th January 2019 at 4:36 am

    Are Neanderthals and humans sub-species? It’s a tricky question. On the one hand, we did interbreed, indicative of a close taxonomic relation. On the other, many of those interbreeding events reduced in infertile offspring; as indicated by the purging of Neanderthal DNA from the Y chromosome. I think this apparent contradiction stems from the fact that many taxonomic principles are the work of the creationist Linnaeus. He, for all his species-defining brilliance, failed to take into account these sorts of edge cases produced by evolution. Evolving animals don’t fit into the neat boxes he imagined.

    Regardless of which side of the taxonomic debate one falls, the fact remains that there were key differences between humans and Neanderthals. Thus, the discovery of similarities between the two remains fascinating.

clayton hinkle · 11th January 2019 at 7:52 pm

I have a problem with saying we’re human and Neanderthals aren’t. It seems everyone is on this bandwagon, but doesn’t it make more sense to say they are just a different kind of human? It’s like as if chimps were talking about gorillas and saying they weren’t really apes. And especially now, when there are new discoveries being made that show more and more “human” behavior from Neanderthals.

    Adam Benton · 13th January 2019 at 10:49 am

    It is perhaps better to use the term “human” more broadly, with anatomically modern humans (AMH) being the term reserved for us. Alas, these nuances don’t work well in blog headlines.

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