Contrary to popular scientific opinion, it turns out life for Neanderthals probably wasn’t any more violent or dangerous than it was for our modern human ancestors.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany compared the head injuries suffered by Neanderthals and the earliest modern humans living during the Upper Paleolithic era—between 80,000 and 20,000 years ago—and found that both groups experienced similar levels of head trauma.
Their findings, published online in Nature, challenge the common assumption that Neanderthals lived particularly treacherous and violent lives, and struggled on a daily basis to survive the harsh conditions of their existence.
The view of Neanderthal life as unusually violent and dangerous relies largely on case studies of Neanderthal skeletons that showed a high number of injuries, especially head injuries. As possible causes for these injuries, scholars have pointed to violent social behavior, the risks of a highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle in difficult Ice Age conditions and attacks by carnivorous animals such as bears or hyenas. Neanderthals are thought to have used close-range, non-projectile hunting weapons, like thrusting spears, which would have brought them dangerously close to their prey.
While most of this previous research was done on a case-by-case basis, and often compared the Neanderthals’ injuries to present-day modern human injuries, the new study was a population-wide analysis of Neanderthals and Upper Paleolithic modern humans in Western Eurasia.
The researchers analyzed a collection of fossils containing more than 800 samples, sorting by presence of skull trauma, sex, age at death, the level of preservation of the remains and the location where they were found. No matter what statistic model they applied, the researchers discovered no difference in injury rates between the Neanderthals and early modern humans.
“Our findings refute the hypothesis that Neanderthals were more prone to head injuries than modern humans, contrary to common perception,” the study’s lead researcher Katerina Harvati, said in a university press release. “We therefore believe that the commonly cited Neanderthal behaviors leading to high injury levels, such as violent behavior and inferior hunting capabilities, must be reconsidered.”
Scientists have recently been discovering more and more information about Neanderthals that contradicts the brutish stereotype of ages past. Recent studies have revealed that Neanderthals made the earliest cave art, used relatively sophisticated hunting techniques, knew how to start fires and even stood straighter than modern humans do. They also interbred not only with early modern humans, but with other ancient human relatives like the mysterious Denisovans.