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Maybe Neanderthals Weren't Quite So Nasty And Brutish

Neanderthals are believed to have relied on dangerous close range hunting techniques, using non-projectile weapons like the thrusting spears depicted in this artist's rendition.
Gleiver Prieto & Katerina Harvati
Neanderthals are believed to have relied on dangerous close range hunting techniques, using non-projectile weapons like the thrusting spears depicted in this artist's rendition.

Neanderthals might bring to mind images of cartoonish brutes whacking each other with clubs.

But even though a number of Neanderthal skeletons have been unearthed showing grave head and neck injuries, new research suggests their lives weren't as violent as the stereotype implies.

In fact, the levels of cranial injuries for Neanderthals are very similar to those of early modern humans, according to scientists whose work was published today in the journal Nature.

"There is no statistical difference between the two, which means that they cannot be differentiated," says study co-author Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

"I definitely think that it's evidence these guys were not beating each other up," at least not any more than early modern humans, says Fred Smith, an Illinois State University professor specializing in Neanderthals who was not involved in the research.

Smith says he's not surprised by the results, and that for many years, "there was a lot of focus on emphasizing the differences between Neanderthals and us."

That changed in 2010, when scientists found that Neanderthals contributed genetic material to modern humans, making them an early relative. Since then, a flurry of research has challenged the image of Neanderthals as savage troglodytes. Researchers have suggested they may have made art, enjoyed long childhoods, sometimes ate vegetarian diets and even wore jewelry and makeup.

The researchers put together a database from published articles that described the bones of 204 individual Neanderthals and early Upper Paleolithic modern humans, including cranial injuries. The specimens came from what is now Europe and Asia, and date back approximately 20,000 to 80,000 years ago.

In both groups, males were more likely to have cranial injuries than females — which, according to the University of Tübingen, is "explained by division of labor between men and women or by culturally determined sex-specific behaviors and activities."

And though the level of head trauma between Neanderthals and early modern humans was statistically the same, Neanderthals who sustained head trauma before they were 30 were more likely to also die younger.

"This finding does not necessarily mean the modern humans survived longer, but instead could result from Neanderthals sustaining cranial injuries earlier in life than Upper Paleolithic modern humans," she says. "[Or] it could also indicate that Neanderthals had a higher risk of mortality after surviving cranial injuries as compared to Upper Paleolithic modern humans."

It could also mean that early modern humans were better at taking care of their injured.

Harvati says there were probably many causes of these head injuries. Besides hunting and inter-personal violence, cranial injuries in both groups were likely caused by "accidents from a highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle in glacial environments as well as carnivore attacks."

It's worth noting that the researchers are comparing Neanderthals to early modern humans because they are most likely to have had a similar lifestyle. Comparing Neanderthals to humans today, says Harvati, would be like comparing "apples to oranges."

She adds that modern-day humans, of course, face "a completely different range of dangers which can result in extremely severe traumatic injuries, which simply did not exist among Neanderthals or Paleolithic modern humans."

Dangers such as car accidents — or ballistic trauma from firearms.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.