Teeth of Neanderthal infants developed sooner than modern humans

Olivia Miller
Neanderthal tooth by Luke Mjeda - Croatian Natural History Museum

Research led by the University’s School of Anthropology and Conservation has found that the teeth of Neanderthal infants formed before birth and developed much sooner than modern human children.

Modern humans have a slow and extended period of childhood growth but to what extent this pathway was present in Neanderthals is hotly debated. Part of the problem is that we know very little about the growth of Neanderthal infants in the months before and just after birth.

The study published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B, has gained a unique insight into the early growth of these fossil infants.

Dr Patrick Mahoney, Dr Alessia Nava and Dr Gina McFarlane examined milk teeth of three Neanderthals that lived 120-130,000 years ago. These teeth start to form before birth and develop as part of a growing organism. They retain a record of their own growth and preserve well in the fossil record. They are time capsules of information.

Dr Nava said: ‘We used state-of-the-art non-destructive virtual histology that relies upon synchrotron radiation to examine the inside of the milk teeth. We were able to identify the exact moment these Neanderthals were born.’

Dr Mahoney said: ‘Our study has revealed these Neanderthals had an accelerated patten of dental development compared to a typical modern human child. This likely enabled them to process more demanding supplementary foods at an earlier age compared to a typical modern human child.’

Their finding is consistent with previous evidence that Neanderthals have high brain growth rates by their second year that likely generated large energetic costs.

The Kent researchers propose ‘these costs could have been offset for Neanderthal infants by their ability to process more demanding supplementary foods at a relatively early age, thereby providing the increased energy rapid brain growth demanded.’

The research paper titled ­­­‘Growth of Neanderthal infants from Krapina (120-130 ka), Croatia ’is published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2021.2079

Dr Alessia Nava at the Elettra Sincrotone Trieste in Italy, where non-destructive synchrotron radiation computed microtomography was applied to the Neanderthal milk teeth.


Neanderthal milk incisor – Credit: Dr Patrick Mahoney