Were Neanderthal Children Larger Than Previously Thought?

According to a study that will soon appear in the Journal of Human Evolution, a recent discovery of the remains of a Neanderthal infant, particularly of a lower jaw and teeth unearthed in a Belgian cave, are of the youngest of the species ever found in northern Europe.

The remains suggest that the infant died at one year and a one-and-a-half years of age. The remains of two adults were also previously discovered in this same cave, which may indicate, depending on the results of DNA analysis, that the fossils represent a Neanderthal family.

One prominent Neanderthal feature concerns the front teeth, which were larger than those found on modern humans. According to Isabelle Crevecoeur, director of anthropological research at the National Center of Scientific Research in France:

“When the infant died, he already possessed Neanderthal characteristics, notably a strong mandibular corpus (toothy part of the lower jaw)… Belgium has a long-standing Neanderthal history. The country has the highest concentration of Neanderthal remains. The first Neanderthal specimen ever found was in Belgium during the 19th century.”

The child’s remains were found at Spy Cave in Jemeppe-sur-Sambre, Belgium. This particular grotto is part of a rock shelter located close to a small river called Orneau. According once again to Crevecoeur:

“Its location on the bottom of the cliff that overhangs the valley was probably really advantageous with a clear view of the valley.”

The remains are important because they suggest a Neanderthal presence lasting thousands of years. It is known that they began inhabiting the cave around 44,000 years ago and that the recently discovered infant lived and died some 33,000 years ago.

According to Erik Trinkaus, a leading expert on Neanderthals and professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri:

“The remains suggest well-reasoned and reasonable conclusions… There has been a lot of attention (paid) to Neanderthal growth and development, and others… have made statements that are based on very few fossils and pathetically small modern human comparative samples… We are limited in the numbers of fossils we have, and this is a welcome addition to help us get a better handle on the real variation that was there. And it is only with comparing patterns and levels of variation that we will understand the evolutionary processes involved.”

Next year, a visitor’s site will be unveiled at Spy Cave that will provide virtual reconstructions of the adult Neanderthals found.

Care to come and share some campfire-roasted… God knows what?

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