Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans who lived 80,000 to 20,000 years ago experienced similar levels of head trauma, reports a paper published online this week in Nature. These findings challenge the stereotype that Neanderthals lived more violent lives.
Although Neanderthals are commonly depicted as leading more dangerous lives than contemporaneous modern humans, evidence for this is largely anecdotal and consists of case studies of injured Neanderthal skeletons, rather than quantitative population-level studies. In addition, these cases were often compared to present-day rather than contemporaneous modern human injuries.
Katerina Harvati and colleagues conducted a population-level comparison of head injuries in Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans using the largest fossil dataset that is currently available (dating to roughly 80,000 to 20,000 years ago), which contains over 800 samples. The authors recorded the presence of skull trauma, sex, age at death, skeleton preservation, and location for each case, and assessed differences in skull trauma prevalence between the groups. They report no difference in injury rates between Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans, although males in both groups displayed greater frequencies of injuries than females. This difference could be explained by sex-specific behaviours and activities, according to the authors.
There were higher skull trauma incidences among young Neanderthal skeletons, whereas Upper Palaeolithic modern humans maintained consistent injury rates across age groups. The authors suggest this may reflect differences in age-related risk of injury and in post-injury survival rates between the two groups.