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Look: Ancient teeth hints at a similarity between Neanderthal and human brains

Dr. Patrick Mahoney

For all we know about the adult lives of ancient Neanderthals, we know even less about their childhoods.

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That’s because very few fossils of Neanderthal children and babies have been discovered — save for a few specimens here and there.

Tracing their early years could shed light on how Neanderthals developed.

The answers we glean may in turn illuminate other mysteries, such as how their mental and physical capabilities compared to those of ancient humans.

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We know that Neanderthals had baby teeth, just like humans.

These teeth can reveal how quickly Neanderthal children began eating solid food — a developmental milestone that correlates with a period of accelerated brain growth.

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In a new study published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers describe baby teeth samples from three Neanderthals.

They sought to find out how quickly these teeth grew in.

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The teeth were discovered in Krapina, Croatia. They’re the remains of Neanderthals that lived about 130,000 years ago.

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Human babies typically get their first teeth — incisors — in the front of their mouths between 6-10 months old.

Molars and canines grow more slowly.

The researchers found that the rate of tooth growth in Neanderthals was similar to human babies, and in some cases even faster.

Dr. Patrick Mahoney

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Past analysis suggests Neanderthal infants may have been able to start processing food besides their mother’s milk at as early as 4 months old.

The research on the Krapina infants comes to a similar conclusion.

However, faster development is not necessarily a good thing.

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Study co-author B. Holly Smith tells Inverse that faster growth can indicate higher rates of mortality in a species.

“As the risk of death before reproduction increases, pressure to grow, develop, and reproduce earlier increases.”

B. Holly Smith, to Inverse

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If teeth appeared earlier in Neanderthals, it may mean their brains and bodies may have developed — and aged — more quickly than humans, too.