Nature explodes the myth of brutal, violent cavemen with a skull study that shows they were about as mellow as modern humans:
Writing in Nature, Beier et al. provide evidence that challenges the long-standing view2 that Neanderthal populations experienced a level of traumatic injuries that was significantly higher than that of humans. The result calls into question claims that the behaviour and technologies of Neanderthals exposed them to particularly high levels of risk and danger.
Skeletons preserve — in the form of holes, misshapen surfaces, bone misalignments and secondary fractures radiating out from a point of impact — a signature of the traumas that resulted in fractured, cut or perforated bones, even if the injuries subsequently healed4,5.
Traumatic lesions have been frequently identified in Neanderthal fossils, particularly in the head (Fig. 1) and neck, leading to the view2 that higher levels of skeletal injury occurred in Neanderthal populations than in human populations. However, this is not so, say Beier and colleagues. The authors assessed published descriptions of Neanderthal and modern human fossil skulls found in Eurasia from approximately 80,000 to 20,000 years ago. Comparing the number of injured and non-injured Neanderthal and human skulls, the authors report similar levels of head trauma in both groups.
Both Neanderthal and human males had a much greater incidence of trauma than did the females of their respective species. This pattern remains the same for humans today. One final intriguing result is that, although traumatic injuries were present across all of the age ranges studied, Neanderthals that had trauma to the head were more likely to have died under the age of 30 than the humans were. The authors interpret this result as evidence that, compared with humans, Neanderthals either had more injuries when they were young or were more likely to have died after being injured.
Beier and colleagues’ study does not invalidate previous estimates of trauma among Neanderthals. Instead, it provides a new framework for interpreting these data by showing that the level of Neanderthal trauma was not uniquely high relative to that of early humans in Eurasia.