A new study reported in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology challenges the traditional view that Neanderthal childhood was short, difficult and dangerous.
The traditional perception of the toughness of Neanderthal childhood is based largely on biological evidence, but archaeologists led by Dr Penny Spikins from the University of York also studied cultural and social evidence to explore the experience of Neanderthal children.
They found that Neanderthal childhood experience was subtly different from that of their modern human counterparts in that it had a greater focus on social relationships within their group.
Dr Spikins and her colleagues said: “Neanderthal children played a particularly significant role in their society, particularly in symbolic expression.”
“There is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years.”
The study of child burials, meanwhile, reveals that the young may have been given particular attention when they died, with generally more elaborate graves than older individuals.
Neanderthal groups are believed to have been small and relatively isolated, suggesting important implications for the social and emotional context of childhood.
Living in rugged terrain, there will have been little selection pressure on overcoming the tendency to avoid outside groups with a consequent natural emotional focus on close internal connections.
“The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as unusually harsh, difficult and dangerous. This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and an inability to protect children epitomizing Neanderthal decline,” Dr Spikins explained.
“Our research found that a close attachment and particular attention to children is a more plausible interpretation of the archaeological evidence, explaining an unusual focus on infants and children in burial, and setting Neanderthal symbolism within a context which is likely to have included children.”
“Interpretations of high activity levels and frequent periods of scarcity form part of the basis for this perceived harsh upbringing.”
Dr Spikins added: “however, such challenges in childhood may not be distinctive from the normal experience of early Paleolithic human children, or contemporary hunter-gatherers in particularly cold environments.”
“There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment.”
Penny Spikins et al. 2014. The Cradle of Thought: Growth, Learning, Play and Attachment in Neanderthal Children. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 111–134; doi: 10.1111/ojoa.12030