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February 15, 2009

Nasty, Brutish, and Short? Neandertals Died Young

CT of teeth.jpgPeople today can live long enough for three and sometimes even four generations to interact. But did Neandertals know their grandparents? At a symposium Friday, Rachel Caspari of Central Michigan University argued that the answer is no.

Caspari analyzed a trove of 120,000-year-old Neandertal fossils from the site of Krapina in Croatia. Excavated more than 100 years ago, the assemblage contains bones of 75 to 83 individuals, which apparently accumulated within 10,000 to 20,000 years. Caspari estimated their age at death from the teeth; in young people, teeth are generally pristine, while the enamel is worn away in older people. And over time, a tooth's pulp cavity shrinks as additional dentine is deposited into it. In a new method, Caspari used nondestructive micro CT scans to measure pulp cavities.

After aging each specimen, she found that the Krapina Neandertals died before the age of 30. "There were very few old Neandertals, if any," she said. For every 10 young adults found, only four older Neandertals were found. In contrast, among modern humans who lived perhaps 30,000 years ago in Europe, 20 older adults are found for every 10 young adults, according to similar analyses by Caspari and colleagues.

The increase in elders could have had profound consequences for behavior and culture, such as the magnificent cave paintings in France. "Could this increase in adult survivorship account for the Upper Paleolithic explosion of art?" Caspari asked.

Older adults can care for and transmit culture to the young, and more adults means a larger population, which most researchers agree spurs cultural innovation. "I think this helped drive modern human behavior," Caspari said. She notes that modern humans from the same time period as Krapina also seemed to have died young. "It's not necessarily a species thing," she said.

It's risky to base big conclusions on a single assemblage, warned Alan Mann of Princeton. But Caspari's presentation was thought-provoking, said Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. "Think of all those little orphan Neandertals," she said. "They must have been living on a knife edge."

--Elizabeth Culotta


The study population is 120,000 years old, I wonder if this trend continued in later Neandertal populations? That might be a better comparison with modern human populations that migrated into Europe after 40,000 years ago.