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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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 evolution, 78, pp.181-201.
- 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 advances, 4(10), p.eaau9483.