Neanderthal remains of 8-year-old boy reveal secrets of the large brain

The remains of a young Neanderthal boy are helping shed light on how Neanderthals developed such large brains (larger than that of modern humans, in fact). According to the study, these larger brains were likely due to longer growth periods. Such a conclusion was made by analyzing the largely complete and well-preserved skeletal remains of a Neanderthal child estimated to have been 7 or 8 at the time of death.

The remains were discovered at a site in Spain dated back about 49,000 years, and they presented the unique opportunity to study a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton. The researchers set out to discover whether Neanderthals developed as fast as other primates or more slowly like modern humans.

First things first, the remains indicate that the Neanderthal child's brain was still developing at the time of death; researchers peg the develop as having been nearly 88% finished (when compared to the size of adult Neanderthal brains, that is). When comparing this to modern humans — which would have reached about a 95% development rate by that age — we find that Neanderthals' brains developed more slowly.

The slower development wasn't limited to just the brain, though, as the researchers noted that vertebrae hadn't yet fused in the child, whereas they would have by that age in a modern human. However, there were other elements that showed a more rapid development akin to present-day children. Summing it up, the study notes:

The vertebral maturation pattern and extended brain growth most likely reflect Neandertal physiology and ontogenetic energy constraints rather than any fundamental difference in the overall pace of growth in this extinct human.

SOURCE: Science Mag, LiveScience