Growing up the Neanderthal way
Human childhood is lengthy because of because the development of large, modern brains diverts energy from physical growth. However, by the time they are eight, children’s brains have reached their full size, allowing energy to shift towards physical development. This concentration on brain development during the early years of life means that Homo sapiens young do not reach adulthood quickly – meaning childhood is extended for the sake of more complex brain development.
This phenomenon has long been believed to be unique to Homo sapiens and used to suggest that Homo sapiens brains had an advantage over their hominid relatives because their slowly developing brains were larger and more sophisticated. However, analysis of a 49,000 Neanderthal child found in a cave in El Sidron, Spain, has led to a reconsideration of the uniqueness of the development of the homo sapiens brain- and thus the length of its childhood.
The nearly eight-year-old boy was discovered with other members of his family in 1994. Out of the group of seven adults, three teenagers and three younger children, J1 as he became known had the most complete skeleton- making him perfect as a subject for the study of Neanderthal childhood. The Spanish National Research Council studying the remains managed to glean a great deal from the little boy’s skeleton. J1 was almost four feet tall and would have weighed 57 pounds. He was right handed and wear on his teeth suggested he was beginning to mimic the adults around him to use his mouth as a ‘third hand.’
J1’s skull also showed signs that his brain was still growing when he died. This is different to modern seven-year-olds whose brains are usually fully developed by this age. However, what it does show was that J1 was subject to a similarly slow rate of brain development as modern humans- suggesting that the slow pace of human brain development is not unique to homo sapiens and meaning that Neanderthal childhood was just as long if not longer than modern humans.
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