Journal article Open Access

Similar cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans

Beier, J.; Anthes, N.; Wahl, J.; Harvati, K.

Neanderthals are commonly depicted as leading dangerous lives and permanently struggling for survival. This view largely relies on the high incidences of trauma that have been reported and have variously been attributed to violent social behaviour, highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyles or attacks by carnivores. The described Neanderthal pattern of predominantly cranial injuries is further thought to reflect violent encounters with large prey mammals, resulting from the use of close-range hunting weapons. These interpretations directly shape our understanding of Neanderthal lifestyles, health and hunting abilities, yet mainly rest on descriptive, case-based evidence. Quantitative, population-level studies of traumatic injuries are rare. Here we reassess the hypothesis of higher cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals using a population-level approach—accounting for preservation bias and other contextual data—and an exhaustive fossil database. We show that Neanderthals and early Upper Palaeolithic anatomically modern humans exhibit similar overall incidences of cranial trauma, which are higher for males in both taxa, consistent with patterns shown by later populations of modern humans. Beyond these similarities, we observed species-specific, age-related variation in trauma prevalence, suggesting that there were differences in the timing of injuries during life or that there was a differential mortality risk of trauma survivors in the two groups. Finally, our results highlight the importance of preservation bias in studies of trauma prevalence.

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