Three teeth of Neanderthal children up to 70,000 years old of antiquity have allowed to know that babies started taking solid foods around six months, the same age as now, and that its growth rate was similar to that of Homo sapiens.
A study published this Monday by Pnas indicates that Neanderthals didn’t behave much differently than they do today when raising their children and that the populations spent most of their time near the places where they lived.
The three baby teeth, between 70,000 and 45,000 years old, found in a small area of northwestern Italy, have allowed a team of British, Italian and American researchers to determine the rate of growth of children and the beginning of weaning.
The teeth grow and record information in the form of growth lines (similar to tree rings), which can be read with histological techniques and which the researchers combined with chemical data obtained with a laser mass spectrometer.
Thanks to the analyzes, they were able to show that those Neanderthals introduced solid foods into their children’s diet around five or six months old.
In modern humans, the first introduction of solid foods occurs around six months, when the child needs a more energetic food supply, which is a practice shared by very different cultures and societies.
Compared to other primates, Federico Lugli of the University of Bologna noted, “it is quite possible that the high energy demand of the growing human brain triggers the early introduction of solid foods in the diet of children “.
Although Neanderthals are our closest “cousins” within the human evolutionary tree, their growth rate and metabolic limitations in the first years of life are still highly debated in the scientific literature.
The results of the work involve the existence of similar energy demands during early childhood and a close growth rate between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, according to Stefano Benazzi, also from the University of Bologna.
These factors “possibly suggest that Neanderthal newborns were similar in weight to modern human neonates, which points to a likely similar gestational history and early life ontogeny, and a potentially shorter interval between births, “he added.
In addition to early diet and growth, the scientists gathered data on the regional mobility of those Neanderthals using strontium isotope analysis.
The results suggest that they were “less mobile” than other scholars have suggested, according to Wolfgang Müller of the Goethe University in Frankfurt.
The three milk teeth were found in a limited area of northeastern Italy, between the present-day provinces of Vicenza and Verona: in the caves of Broion, Fumane and De Nadale.
“The signature of strontium isotopes recorded on their teeth indicates, in fact, that they spent most of their time near their home,” reflecting and likely thoughtful use of local resources.