Interpretations of high activity levels and frequent periods of scarcity form part of the basis for a perceived harsh upbringing among Neanderthal children, says Penny Spikins. "There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment." (Credit: Charles R. Knight via Wikimedia Commons)

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Neanderthal kids had hands-on parents

The traditional perception of the toughness of Neanderthal childhood is based largely on biological evidence, but for a new study, archaeologists also looked at cultural and social evidence. They say children experienced strong emotional attachments with their immediate social group,  and used play to develop skills.

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Published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, the research shows the 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.

Examination of Neanderthal burials suggests that children played a particularly significant role in their society, particularly in symbolic expression.

Parents cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years.  The study of child burials 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.

Close attachments

“The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as unusually harsh, difficult, and dangerous,” says Penny Spikins , senior lecturer at the University of York. “This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and an inability to protect children epitomizing Neanderthal decline.

“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. 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.”

Source: University of York

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