for National Geographic News
Live fast, die young—this is how our closest relatives the Neanderthals were traditionally thought to progress through life.
But a new study of Neanderthal skeletons suggests the species grew quickly but reached sexual maturity later than so-called modern humans—and quite possibly survived to a ripe old age.
(Related: "Neandertals Had Long Childhoods, Tooth Study Suggests" [September 20, 2005].)
The study also suggests that Neanderthals had a harder time of child bearing and possibly child raising. As a result, modern humans may have simply outbred their heavy-browed rivals.
By studying the skulls of Neanderthal babies, researchers were able to estimate how quickly the infants' brains grew.
They found that between birth and adulthood, a Neanderthal brain expanded faster than that of a modern human. The biggest growth spurt occurred in the first couple of years of life.
Neanderthal heads—and therefore brains—were already known to be larger than those of modern humans.
But that doesn't mean Neanderthals matured any faster.
"It shows that brain growth in modern humans and Neanderthals was quite similar and suggests that a fast pace of development was unlikely in the early years," said Chris Dean of University College London, who wasn't involved with the study.
The research appears tomorrow in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
(For more on Neanderthals, watch Neanderthal Code, airing on Sunday, September 21, on the National Geographic Channel.)
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