What an eight-year-old Neanderthal boy can tell us about how our extinct relatives developed

Sep 26, 2017

By Alessandra Potenza

A Neanderthal boy of around eight who died almost 50,000 years ago still has things to tell us: mainly that our extinct human relatives grew up at a pace similar to our own. Knowing that can give us clues to Neanderthal social structure, as well as how our hominid cousins raised their children.

The surprisingly well-preserved specimen, dubbed El Sidrón J1, was found in a Spanish cave of the same name in the 1990s, along with a dozen other family members. His bones — at least the ones we’ve found — are a mix of baby and adult teeth, several vertebrae, ribs, finger bones, leg bones, and parts of his skull. At about eight years of age, when the child died of unknown causes, his body had grown at a similar rate to the body of an eight-year-old modern human. There are just a few peculiar differences: his brain hadn’t stopped growing yet, and the vertebrae in his neck and torso looked like the vertebrae of a four- to six-year-old human kid, according to the new study, published today in Science.

“It provides the most detailed snapshot of development in Neanderthals that we have,” says Chris Kuzawa, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, who did not take part in the study. However, researchers caution that this is just one Neanderthal child — and because every person is different, with different brain sizes and different growth rates, it’s really hard to draw specific conclusions about the entirety of Neanderthals. “This is pulling one person, one Neanderthal individual, from all the people that lived at that time,” Kuzawa tells The Verge. “That’s definitely a big caveat.”

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