Neandertal baby brains may have grown like ours

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Neandertal baby brains may have grown like ours

Neandertals and modern humans had a lot in common—at least enough to have babies together fairly often. But what about their brains? To answer that question, scientists have looked at how Neandertal and modern human brains developed during the crucial time of early childhood. In the first year of life, modern human infants go through a growth spurt in several parts of the brain: the cerebellum, the parietal lobes, and the temporal lobes—key regions for language and social interaction. Past studies suggested baby Neandertal brains developed more like the brains of chimpanzees, without concentrated growth in any particular area. But a new study casts doubt on that idea. Scientists examined 15 Neandertal skulls, including one newborn and a pair of children under the age of 2. By carefully imaging the skulls, the team determined that Neandertal temporal lobes, frontal lobes, and cerebellums did, in fact, grow faster than the rest of the brain in early life, a pattern very similar to modern humans, they report today in Current Biology. Scientists had overlooked that possibility, the researchers say, because Neandertals and Homo sapiens have such differently shaped skulls. Modern humans’ rounded skull is a telltale marker of the growth spurt, for example, whereas Neandertals’ skulls were relatively flat on the top. If Neandertals did, in fact, have fast developing cerebellums and temporal and frontal lobes, they might have been more skilled at language and socializing than assumed, scientists say. This could in turn explain how the children of Neandertal–modern human pairings fared well enough to pass down their genes to so many us living today.