Gleiver Prieto & Katerina Harvati

Neanderthals may not have been the headbangers scientists once assumed

Neanderthals are often depicted as graduates of the Stone Age school of hard knocks: Without sophisticated weapons, they had to face down violent prey such as woolly rhinos at close range (illustrated above)—and they should have the broken skulls to prove it. But a new study reveals our closest human relatives were no more likely than Stone Age members of our species to sustain head injuries.

Researchers collated data from previous studies on 295 Neanderthal skull bones and 541 modern human skull bones from individuals who lived in Eurasia between 80,000 and 20,000 years ago. Just 39 of the skull bones—14 Neanderthal and 25 modern human—showed signs of injury such as lesions to the bone. That’s a 5% injury rate across the skull bones of both species, suggesting no real difference between the two, the team reports today in Nature.

So how did Neanderthals stay safe? They may have killed prey by driving it into natural pit traps in the landscape, the authors say, or cooperated on hunts to reduce the chances of individuals sustaining injuries.

However, young Neanderthals did seem to have proportionally more smacks on the head: Of the 14 Neanderthal bones with injuries, nine came from individuals under 30 years old, whereas only seven of the 25 modern human bones with injuries came from such young individuals. So, it’s possible that young Neanderthals took more risks than young members of our own species.