What was life like for female Neanderthals?

When someone says “Neanderthal” to you, what is the first thing that comes to mind? If it’s an image of a “caveman”-like person, that wouldn’t be too surprising. A quick image search yields results showing mostly male Neanderthals – but what about the females of the species? What do we know about them and how they lived?

Leaving home?

With limited research in this area, it is difficult to know much about the early years of a female Neanderthal’s life. However, when it comes to progressing into adulthood, there are some clues.

For example, a Neanderthal mutation is present in some people today and is thought to cause an earlier onset of menarche – the first menstrual cycle, or menstruation. This suggests that female Neanderthals may have started menstruating and reaching adulthood (at least reproductively) at an earlier age than is typically seen in humans today.

As they grew older, they may also have adopted sexual partners or partners. If they did find a mate, a small study suggests that female Neanderthals may have moved from their own community to their partner’s.

Researchers analyzed the genomes of Neanderthals whose remains were found in two different Siberian caves for clues about their social organization. This included the sequence of the Y chromosomes, which are passed on from fathers, but also looked at the mitochondrial DNA inherited from the mother.

From this, they found that there was more diversity in the mitochondrial genome than in the Y-chromosome DNA, which the researchers said “can best be explained by female migration between communities.”

However, the team only presented the genetic data of 13 individuals; More samples would be needed to draw solid conclusions about whether female Neanderthals actually diverged from their original communities.

Painful delivery – but maybe they had help

Regardless of where they ended up staying, at some point many female Neanderthals would have ended up with an adorable (okay, we’re guessing in this regard) little Neanderthal baby – although we now know that this could have been the case too. half Homo sapiens. Even for modern-day humans, the experience of having a baby can be a mixed bag, but what was childbirth like for Neanderthals?

Probably just as painful and difficult as it is now, according to researchers from the University of California at Davis and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Using computed tomography scans, researchers created a virtual reconstruction of a Neanderthal’s pelvis; specifically that of a female found in Tabun Cave.

The reconstruction suggests that the birth canal of a female Neanderthal was very different from that of a modern human; it was widest from side to side and did not rotate. This lack of turning indicates that babies may not have rotated in the womb (although not everyone is convinced), although that doesn’t mean birth was easier back then.

Neanderthal babies might have had slightly bigger, longer heads, so a big ol’ baby noggin plus a relatively small area from which to enter the world would still have equaled quite a bit.

Luckily, maybe they had people on their side to get through it. A 2019 study suggests that Neanderthals had health care practices — and according to lead author Dr. Penny Spikins, that could have expanded to something akin to obstetrics.

“It is likely that they would have assisted a delivery; the role we now assign to midwives,” Spikins said in a statement. “Without support, they likely could not have survived the toll that maternal and infant mortality could have taken on their communities.”

“Hunting belonged to everyone”

Besides giving birth to the next generation of Neanderthals, what was the role of women within their community? Although it’s hard to say for sure, the evidence suggests that it may not have been that different from the male members of the species.

In the fossils of both male and female Neanderthals, trauma to the bones reflecting a hunting life has been found, as well as evidence of tooth wear that suggests both sexes participated in activities that used teeth as an extra hand, such as working with hides.

According to assistant professor of anthropology Cara Ocobock, this probably did not change with parenthood. “[W]We have no reason to believe that prehistoric women gave up hunting while pregnant, nursing or carrying children,” Ocobock said in a statement, “nor do we see any indication in the distant past that there was a strict division of labor between men and women existed.”

Hunting ‘belonged to everyone, not just men.’

Without a time machine, it is of course difficult to know exactly what the life of a female Neanderthal was like. It would be easier to say what they couldn’t do, like going to the grocery store or subscribing to the IFLScience YouTube channel. But based on the little evidence we have, it paints a picture with many differences and some similarities to what we see in their distant relatives today.

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