Ancient bone shows how Neanderthals cared for the vulnerable, study says

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A fossilized ear bone unearthed in a cave in Spain has revealed a Neanderthal child who lived with Down syndrome until the age of 6, according to a new study.

The find suggested that community members cared for the vulnerable child, who lived at least 146,000 years ago. The research is at odds with the image of Neanderthals, ancient human relatives who became extinct about 40,000 years ago, as brutal cavemen.

“The individual would have required continuous and intensive care,” said paleoanthropologist Mercedes Conde-Valverde, the lead author of a study on the bone published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

The child “suffered from severe hearing loss and had severe balance problems and episodes of dizziness,” explains Conde-Valverde, assistant professor of physical anthropology at the University of Alcalá in Spain.

Muscle weakness would also have made breastfeeding and exercise difficult, she added.

The small fossil was unearthed in 1989 at the archaeological site of Cova Negra in the Spanish province of Valencia. However, archaeologists only recently discovered the specimen when they combed through faunal fragments collected from the site during an assessment of the material.

“We were able to identify it as a Neanderthal thanks to the peculiar proportions of its semicircular canals, which are characteristic of Neanderthals,” Conde-Valverde said, referring to the inner tubes of the ear.

The study did not include precise dating of the bone, which would require extraction of ancient DNA, but Neanderthals occupied the site 146,000 to 273,000 years ago. The research team has not determined the sex of the young Neanderthal.

A surprising lifespan

People with Down syndrome can live long lives today, but it was surprising that the child lived beyond the age of six, Conde-Valverde said.

Life in the Stone Age would have been demanding. The research showed that Neanderthals were highly mobile and regularly moved from place to place. The care required for the child to survive for an extended period likely involved the mother’s dependence on the cooperation and support of other members of the group.

Even in the recent past, it was common for people with Down syndrome to die in childhood. According to the study, life expectancy in 1929 for children with Down syndrome, a condition caused by an extra partial or complete chromosome, was nine years. By the 1940s, the expected lifespan had increased to twelve years.

Today, about 1 in 772 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, and life expectancy now exceeds 60 years, according to the National Down Syndrome Society of the United States.

The oldest known case of Down syndrome in Homo sapiens, our own species, dates back at least 5,300 years. Using ancient DNA, the authors of a study published in February identified six cases in prehistoric populations. None of the children lived longer than 16 months.

Down syndrome has also been documented in chimpanzees. A January 2016 study revealed the case of a chimpanzee with Down syndrome who survived for 23 months thanks to the care the mother received, with help from the eldest daughter.

However, when the daughter stopped caring for her own offspring, the mother was unable to provide the necessary care and the offspring died, the study said.

Examination of the fossil revealed abnormalities in the ear bone.  -Mercedes Conde-Valverde/Julia Diez-Valero

Examination of the fossil revealed abnormalities in the auditory bone. – Mercedes Conde-Valverde/Julia Diez-Valero

Abnormalities in the inner ear

Conde-Valverde and her colleagues believe the bone belonged to a child with Down syndrome due to a series of abnormalities in the structure of the inner ear.

These include an abnormal shape of the lateral semicircular canal (the shortest ear canal); an enlarged vestibular aqueduct, a narrow, bony canal that runs from the inner ear deep into the skull, and a reduction in the overall size of the cochlear bone chamber.

“Some of these pathologies are common across different syndromes, but the combination present in the Cova Negra fossil has only been described in contemporary humans with Down syndrome,” she said.

Definitive proof that the child had Down syndrome would require recovering ancient DNA from the fossil, but that had not yet been possible, she said.

Previous studies of archaeological finds have suggested that Neanderthals cared for vulnerable members of their group.

A Neanderthal buried in Shanidar Cave in what is now Iraq was deaf and suffered paralytic arm and head trauma that likely left him partially blind, yet he lived a long time, according to October 2017 research.

A Neanderthal skeleton known as the “Old Man of La Chapelle,” discovered in what is now central France, had degenerative arthritis and may have been fed by other members of his group, a February 2019 study found.

A child cared for ‘like anyone else’

Conde-Valverde said the discovery of the Cova Negra fossil supported the existence of true altruism among Neanderthals.

“It has been known for decades that Neanderthals cared for their vulnerable companions,” Conde-Valverde said.

“However, all known cases of care involved adult individuals, leading some scientists to believe that this behavior was not true altruism, but merely an exchange of help between equals,” she said.

“What was not known until now was a case of a person who had received extra-maternal care from birth, even though this could not be answered.”

Most parents today don’t view child care as an “expectation of reciprocity,” and it was unlikely that this would be the case among Neanderthals, says Penny Spikins, professor of archeology at the University of York in the United Kingdom and author of “Hidden Depths : The Origins of Human Connection.”

Humans have likely developed an instinctive and emotional response to caring for babies to ensure their survival, said Spikins, who was not involved in the study.

“This finding highlights how similar we Neanderthals were in many ways, especially in our common human desire to care for the vulnerable,” she said.

“We can imagine that this child was loved and cared for like any other.”

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