A research team from PALAEO (Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins) and the Department of Archaeology at York offer a new and distinctive perspective which suggests that Neanderthal children experienced strong emotional attachments with their immediate social group, used play to develop skills and played a significant role in their society.
The traditional perception of the toughness of Neanderthal childhood is based largely on biological evidence, but the archaeologists, led by Dr Penny Spikins, also studied cultural and social evidence to explore the experience of Neanderthal children.In research published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, they found that Neanderthal childhood experience was subtly different from that of their modern human counterparts in that it had a greater focus on social relationships within their group. Investigation of Neanderthal burials suggests that children played a particularly significant role in their society, particularly in symbolic expression.
The research team, which also included Gail Hitchens, Andy Needham and Holly Rutherford, say there is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years. The study of child burials, meanwhile, reveals that the young may have been given particular attention when they died, with generally more elaborate graves than older individuals.Neanderthal groups are believed to have been small and relatively isolated, suggesting important implications for the social and emotional context of childhood. Living in rugged terrain, there will have been little selection pressure on overcoming the tendency to avoid outside groups with a consequent natural emotional focus on close internal connections.
Dr Spikins, who has a new book on why altruism was central to human evolutionary origins, How Compassion Made Us Human, (Pen and Sword) published later this year, said: "The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as unusually harsh, difficult and dangerous. This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and an inability to protect children epitomising Neanderthal decline.
"Our research found that a close attachment and particular attention to children is a more plausible interpretation of the archaeological evidence, explaining an unusual focus on infants and children in burial, and setting Neanderthal symbolism within a context which is likely to have included children.
"Interpretations of high activity levels and frequent periods of scarcity form part of the basis for this perceived harsh upbringing. However, such challenges in childhood may not be distinctive from the normal experience of early Palaeolithic human children, or contemporary hunter-gatherers in particularly cold environments. There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment."
Folks in the Caucasus are finding that their shepherd dogs are using all sorts of ways to distract wolves from the sheep.
Dog owners in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia might want to consider penning up their dogs more often: hybridization of wolves with shepherd dogs might be more common, and more recent, than previously thought, according to a recently published study in the Journal of Heredity.
Dr. Natia Kopaliani, Dr. David Tarkhnishvili, and colleagues from the Institute of Ecology at Ilia State University in Georgia and from the Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia used a range of genetic techniques to extract and examine DNA taken from wolf and dog fur samples as well as wolf scat and blood samples. They found recent hybrid ancestry in about ten percent of the dogs and wolves sampled. About two to three percent of the sampled wolves and dogs were identified as first-generation hybrids. This included hybridization between wolves and the shepherd dogs used to guard sheep from wolf attacks.
The study was undertaken as part of Dr. Kopaliani's work exploring human-wolf conflict in Georgia. "Since the 2000s, the frequency of wolf depredation on cattle has increased in Georgia, and there were several reports of attacks on humans. Wolves were sighted even in densely populated areas," she explained.
"Reports suggested that, unlike wild wolves, wolf-dog hybrids might lack fear of humans, so we wanted to examine the ancestry of wolves near human settlements to determine if they could be of hybrid origin with free-ranging dogs such as shepherds," she added.
The research team examined maternally-inherited DNA (mitochondrial DNA) and microsatellite markers to study hybridization rates. Microsatellite markers mutate easily, as they do not have any discernible purpose in the genome, and are highly variable even within a single population. For these reasons, they are often used to study hybridization.
"We expected to identify some individuals with hybrid ancestry, but it was quite surprising that recent hybrid ancestry was found in every tenth wolf and every tenth shepherd dog," said study co-author Tarkhnishvili.
"Two dogs out of the 60 or so we studied were inferred to be first generation hybrids," he added.
The study also found that about a third of the dogs sampled shared relatively recent maternal ancestry with local wolves, not with wolves domesticated in the Far East, where most experts believe dogs were first domesticated.
The research team used several alternate methods to confirm their results, and came to the same conclusions with each approach.
The shepherd dogs studied are a local breed used to guard livestock. "Ironically, their sole function is to protect sheep from wolves or thieves," Kopaliani explained. "The shepherd dogs are free-ranging, largely outside the tight control of their human masters. They guard the herds from wolves, which are common in the areas where they are used, but it appears that they are also consorting with the enemy."