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Similar cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans

Naturevolume 563pages686690 (2018) | Download Citation


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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Data availability

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.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks S. Black, M. Mirazón Lahr and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Paleoanthropology, Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

    • Judith Beier
    • , Joachim Wahl
    •  & Katerina Harvati
  2. Animal Evolutionary Ecology Group, Institute of Evolution and Ecology, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

    • Nils Anthes
  3. State Office for Cultural Heritage Management Baden-Württemberg, Osteology, Konstanz, Germany

    • Joachim Wahl
  4. DFG Center for Advanced Studies ‘Words, Bones, Genes, Tools’, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

    • Katerina Harvati


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J.B., J.W. and K.H. conceived the study. J.B. collected data. J.B., J.W., K.H. and N.A. developed the methods. J.B. and N.A. analysed the data. J.B., J.W., K.H. and N.A. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katerina Harvati.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Ratio of skeletal elements with and without trauma.

    a, Ratios of skeletal elements with and without trauma per preservation category for the full dataset of n = 836 skeletal elements. b, Ratios of skeletal elements with and without trauma per age cohort (young or old) and taxon (Neanderthals or Upper Palaeolithic modern humans), excluding sex unknown and age indeterminate skeletal elements (n = 604). Sample sizes given below bars represent numbers of skeletal elements of each subsample. Source data

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Preservation of skeletal elements of Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans.

    a, Number of skeletal elements in each preservation category for Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans for the full dataset of n = 836 skeletal elements. be, Percentages of the four preservation categories for each skeletal element for Neanderthals (b; full dataset, n = 295 skeletal elements), Upper Palaeolithic modern humans (c; full dataset, n = 541 skeletal elements), Neanderthals (d; reduced dataset, excluding age indeterminate and sex unknown elements, n = 198) and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans (e; reduced dataset, excluding age indeterminate and sex unknown elements, n = 406). L and R indicate left and right, respectively. Source data

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Tables

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-3. Supplementary Table 1: Individual data of Neanderthal specimens used in this study. Supplementary Table 2: Individual data of Early Upper Paleolithic modern human specimens used in this study. Supplementary Table 3: Catalogue of single cranial traumatic lesions of Neanderthals and early Upper Paleolithic modern humans used in this study with referenced short descriptions. Supplementary References: Bibliography of references cited in Supplementary Tables 1-3.

  2. Reporting Summary

Source data

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