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Down syndrome discovered in Neanderthals for the first time

In an astonishing revelation, a recent research study has documented what is potentially the first-ever case of Down syndrome in Neanderthals.

This discovery is even more remarkable as it provides evidence of altruistic behavior. It suggests that these prehistoric humans could extend compassion and support to more vulnerable members of their societies. This indicates a capacity for empathy and community care.

Unearthing at Cova Negra

The skeletal remains of a Neanderthal child were unearthed at Cova Negra. This cave, located in Valencia, Spain, has a rich history of significant Neanderthal discoveries. The child is affectionately named “Tina.

The study conducted on Tina’s remains was led by anthropologists at two institutions based in Spain, the University of Alcalá and the University of Valencia.

Professor Valentín Villaverde, a prehistory scholar at the University of Valencia, elaborates on the significance of the site.

“The excavations at Cova Negra have been key to understanding the way of life of the Neanderthals along the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula and have allowed us to define the occupations of the settlement: of short temporal duration and with a small number of individuals, alternating with the presence of carnivores,” he said.

Neanderthal child with Down syndrome

The team experimented with innovative techniques to conduct their research.

Micro-computed tomography scans of a small fragment of Tina’s right temporal bone, containing the ear region, were used to construct a comprehensive three-dimensional model for measurement and analysis.

The findings showed Tina suffered from a congenital pathology of the inner ear associated with Down syndrome, leading to severe hearing loss and disabling vertigo.

Despite this, Tina survived to at least 6 years of age, a feat that would have required substantial care from other group members.

“This is a fantastic study, combining rigorous archaeological excavations, modern medical imaging techniques, and diagnostic criteria to document Down syndrome in a Neanderthal individual for the first time. The results have significant implications for our understanding of Neanderthal behavior,” applauded Professor of Anthropology, Rolf Quam.

Proving Down syndrome among Neanderthals

For years, researchers have shared substantial evidence of Neanderthals caring for their disabled and injured, although the assisted individuals in these cases were typically adults.

This has led some scientists to question whether this was truly a display of altruism or simply an exchange of help between equals.

Mercedes Conde, professor at the University of Alcalá and lead author of the study, emphasized the impact of Tina’s discovery.

“What was not known until now was any case of an individual who had received help, even if they could not return the favor, which would prove the existence of true altruism among Neanderthals. That is precisely what the discovery of ‘Tina’ means,” she stated.

The study’s findings not only document the first case of Down syndrome in Neanderthals, but also shed light on these prehistoric humans’ capacity for true altruistic behavior.

Understanding Neanderthal social structures

The findings from Tina’s remains go way beyond medical diagnostics; they offer us a glimpse into the heart of Neanderthal communities.

Caring for individuals with significant disabilities shows a highly organized and compassionate social structure.

It’s a testament to their empathy and cooperative behavior, much like what we see in modern human societies.

Researchers believe this kind of care required effective communication, shared responsibilities, and a team approach to problem-solving.

These traits, supported by evidence from other archaeological sites, reveal that Neanderthals were complex, empathetic beings capable of deep social bonds and altruism.

Future directions

The techniques used in this study to detect Down syndrome open new doors for future research in paleoanthropology.

Scientists can clearly see details in ancient remains that were previously hidden. This helps us diagnose various illnesses and conditions in prehistoric humans, giving us a better understanding of their health and how they cared for each other.

When archaeologists, anthropologists, and medical experts work together, we learn more about the history of humans. Future findings might show even more similarities between our ancestors and us.

Binghamton University and State University of New York was involved in this research as well. The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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