Down syndrome in a Neanderthal found for the first time

A new study documents the first known case of Down syndrome in a Neanderthal. It also shows how the ancient humans provided care for the vulnerable member of their clan.

Excavations at the Cova Negra cave in Valencia, Spain, revealed the skeletal remains of a Neanderthal child, which was affectionately named “Tina.” Comparing Tina’s bones to those of other Neanderthal, the scientists estimate that the child was at least 6 years old at death.

Micro-CT scans of a small skull fragment from Tina allowed the researchers to produce 3D images of the skull’s internal structure.

Inner ear 3d models from neanderthal fossils
3D model of the inner ear CN-46700 compared with that from another Neanderthal individual who does not show any signs of Down syndrome. Credit: Science Advances.

Their findings, published in Science Advances, reveal something never-before-seen in Neanderthals.

Tina’s inner ear bone’s structure fits the description of someone who has Down syndrome. Among the malformations of the inner ear bone are those which would have caused the child severe hearing loss and reduced balance.

That Tina was able to live to the age of at least 6 shows a high level of altruistic care given to the child by the Neanderthal group.

“The results have significant implications for our understanding of Neanderthal behaviour,” says co-author Rolf Quam, a professor at Binghamton University in New York, US.

While it has been known for decades that Neanderthals cared for disabled individuals, all previous cases involved adult individuals. This suggested reciprocated help between equals.

“What was not known until now was any case of an individual who had received help, even if they could not return the favour, which would prove the existence of true altruism among Neanderthals. That is precisely what the discovery of Tina means,” says lead author Mercedes Conde, professor at the University of Alcalá, Spain.

The child was found in a newly discovered layer at the Cova Negra site. This layer is mostly made up of material from the Middle Palaeolithic (300,000–50,000 years ago) and about a quarter from the Upper Palaeolithic (50,000–12,000 years ago).

A cave in spain
Cova Negra. Credit: JLPorti (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Cova Negra was used intermittently by Neanderthals for short periods of time. Small groups of the ancient humans alternated use of the cave with carnivores such as bears, wolves and cats.

“The excavations at Cova Negra have been key to understanding the way of life of the Neanderthals along the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula and have allowed us to define the occupations of the settlement,” says senior author Valentín Villaverde, a professor at the University of Valencia, Spain.

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