Neanderthal Child May Have Had Down Syndrome, Fossil Suggests

The child’s survival until at least 6 years old could be evidence of collaborative caregiving in Neanderthal societies, according to a new paper

A model of a Neanderthal woman holding a spear next to a rock
Researchers have previously found evidence of Neanderthals caring for sick and injured individuals. Joe McNally / Getty Images

An analysis of an inner ear fossil from a young Neanderthal discovered in Spain suggests the child may have had Down syndrome.

The child lived until at least 6 years old and would have needed continuous care, so their mother may have accepted help from other members of the social group in raising the child, the authors write Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. The findings are evidence that Neanderthals participated in social behavior benefiting others, like caregiving and co-parenting.

“The discovery of the … fossil supports the existence of true altruism among Neanderthals,” Mercedes Conde-Valverde, lead author of the study and an anthropologist at the University of Alcalá in Spain, says to Jacinta Bowler and Brianna Morris-Grant of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC News).

Sarah Turner, a primate behavioral ecologist at Concordia University in Canada who did not contribute to the findings, tells New Scientist’s Michael Marshall that she doesn’t view the care for the child as purely altruistic. “People with Down’s syndrome contribute in all sorts of ways to modern human societies,” she says to the publication. “And I am sure that was true in Neanderthal society, too.”

People with Down syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21. The condition can cause delays in learning how to walk or speak.

A study published in February identified five ancient cases of Down syndrome in humans from between 2,400 and 5,000 years ago using DNA analysis. None of these children survived for longer than 16 months.

Over time, the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased. It was nine years in 1929, 12 years in the 1940s and is now more than 60 years in some countries. Both medical advancements and increased social care for people with Down syndrome and their families have likely contributed to this increase, the study authors write.

For the new research, the scientists examined a bone fragment from the side and base of a skull—including parts of the inner ear—discovered in 1989 in Cova Negra, a cave site in Spain. Neanderthal bones from this site date to between 146,000 and 273,000 years ago. The researchers took a CT scan of the bone and created a 3D computer model to analyze it.

First, they determined that it was very likely a bone from a Neanderthal who was at least six years old when they died, based on how far the inner ear anatomy had developed. The bone also had a number of malformations, including an unusually wide ear canal, an unusual connection between one ear canal and neighboring chamber and a small cochlea, that suggested the child had Down syndrome.

The team initially had a reaction “of skepticism” when they came to this conclusion, Conde-Valverde tells the Washington Post’s Frances Vinall. Usually, Down syndrome is diagnosed through genetic studies, rather than the physical attributes of a fossil. But the absence of other malformations allowed them to rule out other syndromes.

Some other researchers aren’t convinced the evidence is strong enough to say for sure that the child had Down syndrome. “The paper is a bit more speculative than conclusive,” Justyna Miszkiewicz, a biological anthropologist at the University of Queensland in Australia who was not involved in the research, tells ABC News. “They have very limited evidence, literally one tiny piece of bone from like the skull.”

Based on the analysis of the bone, the researchers concluded that the child would have suffered from at least severe hearing loss and a reduced sense of balance and equilibrium.

The child probably received a high level of care to survive for six years, and since Neanderthal societies were highly mobile, the mother likely would not have been able to care for the child alone, the study authors write.

“Neanderthals were clearly caring for people in their group, and this is a lovely example that really brings home how much they cared,” Penny Spikins, an archaeologist at the University of York in England who did not contribute to the findings, tells New Scientist.

“The idea that they’re brutes has been debunked for quite a while now,” Miszkiewicz says to ABC News. “Clearly, there’s more happening in that community. There’s compassion, there’s social complexity, there’s other social support.”

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