During the Ice Age, the big-browed Neanderthals grunted and hulked around their caves, brandishing bones and jagged rocks. They perhaps whipped them violently into stony walls, just to hear the hearty echoes of collision. Fueled by meat and empowered by fire, they may have challenged their wayward brothers to death matches. And, the Neanderthal children might have cowered helplessly in a corner, hoping they weren't next in line for a beating. Or that's how the common caricature would have it.
This cartoonish depiction of Neanderthals as dim-witted and boorish barbarians has seeped into the mainstream academic discourse, even though it goes against evolutionary logic. When it comes to parenting, archaeological interpretations have commonly swayed toward a "nasty, brutish and short" life for kids. But this view ignores key evidence that cavemen may have been good parents.
Burials certainly indicate that children held a special significance. "In contrast to the underrepresentation of child burials in other periods, including modern humans of the Palaeolithic, more than a third of Neanderthal burials are those of children aged under four."
A new paper in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology by University of York archaeologist Penny Spikins and her colleagueschallenges the archetypal narrative and argues that Neanderthal parents doted on their children.
Burials certainly indicate that children held a special significance. "In contrast to the underrepresentation of child burials in other periods, including modern humans of the Palaeolithic, more than a third of Neanderthal burials are those of children aged under four," the authors write. Additionally, child burials are more likely to have well-preserved "artefacts and bones when compared with their adult counterparts." Notably, one infant was buried close to a deer jaw, and another was found "in a shallow grave surrounded by goat horns...."
Neanderthals also seemed to support learning. Some stone tools archaeologists have uncovered at Neanderthal sites were clearly touched by non-expert hands. "[The markings] are indicative of pointless and frustrated battering of a spot where flaking cannot be achieved and is rarely produced by expert knappers, yet these traces appear on 59% of the cores at [Site K, Maastricht-Belvédère]." Why would you allow your child to bang rocks about, if you weren't an awesome parent? "It isn't difficult to imagine a child happily bashing rocks together without really getting anywhere, and being tolerated by the adults," Spikins says in an email.
It seems play was encouraged, too. At another site, Rhenen, archaeologists unearthed miniature toy hand axes. "I rather like the idea of a child being delighted by such a present," Spikins says.
So why haven't other archaeologists put these pieces of the puzzle together? Spikins believes that unscientific biases may have blinded some experts from reaching more logical conclusions.
It is almost as if we can't help ourselves but be biased against Neanderthals. Perhaps they are too close to us for comfort? Perhaps we like to have someone to compare ourselves with to make us feel better? Certainly it has been easy to deride Neanderthals without much or even any evidence....
...I think it makes more sense to look at what the evidence most probably suggests, including the evolutionary relationships between ourselves and other primates who certainly care deeply about their infants and invest a lot of energy in looking after them.