Neanderthals are commonly depicted as leading dangerous lives and permanently struggling for survival. This view largely relies on the high incidences of trauma that have been reported1,2 and have variously been attributed to violent social behaviour3,4, highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyles2 or attacks by carnivores5. The described Neanderthal pattern of predominantly cranial injuries is further thought to reflect violent encounters with large prey mammals, resulting from the use of close-range hunting weapons1. These interpretations directly shape our understanding of Neanderthal lifestyles, health and hunting abilities, yet mainly rest on descriptive, case-based evidence. Quantitative, population-level studies of traumatic injuries are rare. Here we reassess the hypothesis of higher cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals using a population-level approach—accounting for preservation bias and other contextual data—and an exhaustive fossil database. We show that Neanderthals and early Upper Palaeolithic anatomically modern humans exhibit similar overall incidences of cranial trauma, which are higher for males in both taxa, consistent with patterns shown by later populations of modern humans. Beyond these similarities, we observed species-specific, age-related variation in trauma prevalence, suggesting that there were differences in the timing of injuries during life or that there was a differential mortality risk of trauma survivors in the two groups. Finally, our results highlight the importance of preservation bias in studies of trauma prevalence.
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Specimen-level data that support the findings of this study are provided in Supplementary Tables 1, 2. Quantification data for skeletal elements are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Source Data for Figs. 2, 3 and Extended Data Figs. 1, 2 are provided in the online version of the paper.
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We thank J. Svoboda, S. Sázelová (Paleolithic and Paleoanthropology Research Center, Dolní Vĕstonice), M. Oliva and Z. Tvrdý (Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute, Brno) for permission to study the Dolní Vĕstonice, Pavlov and Brno collections, and L. Limmer for her contribution. This research is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG-HA-5258/12-1, DFG-WA-2808/2-1) and supported by the University of Tübingen and Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung. K.H. is supported by ERC-CoG-724703 and DFG-FOR-2237.
Nature thanks S. Black, M. Mirazón Lahr and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.