Experts Have Found Proof Of An Ancient War That Lasted 100,000 Years

War isn’t just a part of history. Conflicts rage around the globe today. And sometimes it’s personal. Perhaps you have loved ones who have valiantly fought overseas or a grandfather who laid down his life for his country. But while any war is devastating, our more modern battles pale in comparison to the combat that took place in Neanderthal times. Archaeologists have even found evidence that one dispute even lasted for 100,000 years. Yes, you read that right…

Thought war was a relatively modern invention? Well, not quite. We have a record of a conflict in 2,700 B.C., for example. Back then, the early nations of Elam and Sumer in southwest Asia clashed. Who won? Sumer. And the victorious leader Enmebaragesi, the king of Kish, took advantage of this upper hand by stealing Elam’s weaponry as spoils of war.

But the area of Mesopotamia, where Sumer was located, had a history of close to unending conflict. The fighting didn’t even stop when the Akkadian king Sargon the Great created an empire, as he had to battle both revolts and invading peoples. And some claim that war gave birth to Egypt, when southern pharaoh Manes conquered the north. Who said it was love that makes the world go round?

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Well, not war commanders, that’s for sure. China became so fond of fighting that one of the eras in its history is called the Warring States Period. And, of course, the Romans conquered great swathes of our planet by military force. Some of their conquests overlapped with ones made in earlier times by the Greeks.

Yes, history is littered with tales of bloodshed and sacrifice. But there’s no reason to believe that conflict began with the written record. You see, both our genes and the remains of our ancestors reveal that war could have a long prehistory – one that started way before 2,700 B.C.

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That prehistory begins on the continent of Africa. That’s where human beings evolved, and it’s where most of the evolution of our species occurred, too. You got it: our earliest ancestors were Africans. And we know this because we’ve found fossils of those who lived there anywhere from two to six million years ago.

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Back in 1960, for instance, researchers uncovered fossils in Tanzania that appeared to be from a cross between humans and apelike creatures called australopiths. These were the remains of Homo habilis, which has been hailed as the first species to be truly human. One descendant of Homo habilis may have been Homo erectus.

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As many as 20 varied species evolved that could be described as humans. We still can’t agree on how they’re all connected, however, and it’s not clear which left successors and which just vanished. The fossil record is that bad! And while many of these species didn’t have any descendants at all, at least one did: our own.

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Around 600,000 years ago or so, one of the human populations in Africa divided into two groups. The first stayed where it was and would in time evolve into modern humans – that’s us. The other set off on a journey that ended in Europe. These folks were Homo neanderthalensis – more commonly known as the Neanderthals.

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Some call the Neanderthals “our cousins.” That’s because we may have a common parent with them: Homo heidelbergensis, which most likely evolved from Homo erectus. Strangely enough, though, all of these species probably existed at the same time. Homo erectus, for instance, didn’t go extinct until about 135,000 years ago. That’s actually fairly recent in human history if you think about it!

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It’s not certain when modern humans – Homo sapiens ­– and the Neanderthals split, and some believe that the division occurred at least a million years ago. But split they did, and the outcome was separate populations. In recent times, we’ve also discovered that the species that became the Neanderthals evolved an Asian branch – called the Denisovans.

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The existence of the Denisovans was deduced from “alien” DNA in ancient bones that didn’t seem to belong to Neanderthals. Then in 2010 geneticists found that a few bits of bone and tooth discovered in a Siberian cave indeed contained Denisovan DNA. And if that isn’t enough, a third group may have existed: the dwarf Homo floresiensis. They had long feet, for one thing!

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But let’s go forward to more recent times. Most scientists believe that the folks left behind in Africa evolved into modern humans. These people then spread out into the world. There’s also the so-called “multi-regional” model, which envisions humans having evolved in various places after they had already moved out of Africa.

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In the multi-regional model, the evolved humans intermixed, and the result was the people you see today. But the evidence from genetics supports the “out of Africa” model of evolution, meaning that’s the theory most scientists go with. And the species that definitely did leave Africa long before modern humans also left their own trace. A small percentage of us still have minuscule amounts of Neanderthal or Denisovan genes, as you may know if you’ve ever taken a DNA test!

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And we can tell a lot about our ancestors through fossils. The oldest remains of humans that had similar bodies to ours come in the shape of two skulls found in southwest Ethiopia. These bones, from Omo National Park, date back 195,000 years. That seems like a long time ago, sure, but it’s nothing when you consider that we’ve discovered ancient humans from six million years ago.

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Those original migrants from Africa, though? They didn’t exactly thrive. In fact, they teetered on the edge of becoming extinct, numbering no more than ten thousand at their lowest point. But, of course, things would look up for the human species. And there’s a surprising reason why.

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About 70,000 years back, a supervolcano erupted in Sumatra, Indonesia. Mount Toba’s explosion likely caused a “nuclear winter” and an ice age that lasted a millennium. You’d think that would have spelled doom for humans, but no! It’s possible, though, that they only emerged from the big chill by cooperating and forming close-knit kin groups. In time, these may have become tribes.

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Once humans had learned how to cooperate with each other, they started to do much better. A second wave left Africa, and this time the people really were like us – both to look at and in how they behaved. They soon spread across the globe, and their numbers ballooned. Now, of course, there are several billion of us on the planet.

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But when our ancestors left Africa, they did not simply wander into an empty world. No, some of the ancient humans who had left before them still lived in other countries. And among them were the Neanderthals. They were later named after the Neander Valley – the spot in Germany where their fossils were first discovered.

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As you may have seen from reconstructions, the Neanderthals had sloping foreheads and big ridges for their eyebrows. Their massive noses were useful, too, as they allowed them to warm and humidify the cold air that they breathed. Overall, the frigid climate Neanderthals lived in had led them to evolve to be rather short and stocky. They did have large brains like us, though.

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These brains enabled the Neanderthals to create complicated tools from bone and stone. It’s even possible that they knew enough chemistry to create their own firestarters. Certainly, they had a type of medicine that they used on themselves. And in their downtime, they created art.

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Surprised? Yep, the Neanderthals were not the simple brutes they’ve been portrayed as. Instead, they were a successful offshoot of the human evolutionary line. And they flourished in Europe after their first appearance 250,000 years ago.

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But, eventually, modern humans spread rapidly into the Near East. We know this because remains from as long as 130,000 years ago have turned up in Israel. At the same time, members of the species may have been leaving tools in what is now the United Arab Emirates. However, as people tried to move from the Near East into Europe, they came across a stumbling block.

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Just like our ancestors, Neanderthals had learned the value of cooperation. They hunted big game in groups, for instance. But they were apex predators, with very little threat in their environment from others. That meant overpopulation always posed a threat. Not only that, but it’s also likely they fought over territory.

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This desire to acquire and defend land is not restricted to humans. Chimpanzees exhibit this behavior, too. Males of the species will come together and go out to battle with rivals in a way that closely resembles war between humans. This suggests that cooperating in aggressive conflict evolved in our shared ancestor. And Neanderthals are likely to have done the same.

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At the very least, Neanderthals deployed weapons to hunt game. They would gang up on animals and bring them down with spears. Even mammoths weren’t too much of a challenge for the plucky hominins. And with all that, it seems difficult to believe that the Neanderthals wouldn’t have used their weapons to defend their territories.

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There’s even evidence of this happening. Yes, that’s what we’ve found from a 36,000-year-old skeleton uncovered at St. Césaire, France, as its skull features a curious healed fracture. Not surprising given the dangerous times, but forensics shows that this injury was likely made by a sharp tool. In other words, the skeleton is that of a man who was speared in the head. Ouch.

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Actually, Neanderthal skeletons often show signs of damage that later healed or bones that degenerated after being hurt. And while it’s possible they received injuries from the animals they were hunting, they could also have been the victims of ancient club attacks or spearings. Humans of the same era show the same kinds of scarring.

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Neanderthal remains also show a lot of arm breaks – possibly caused when they tried to ward off spear strikes. One skeleton found in Iraq even appears to have a deep spear wound in the chest. And such traumatic injuries were apparently common in younger Neanderthals. They’ve come in patterns that seem to indicate small but lasting conflicts between tribes – or, in other words, a long war.

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But the strongest suggestion that there was an ancient war is the boundary between territories. While modern humans spread rapidly across most of the planet, eradicating any species that pre-existed, they made relatively slow progress in the Neanderthal-inhabited areas. So it seems that the Neanderthals fought back, resisting the flood of modern humans for up to 100,000 years.

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This seems a clear answer to why modern humans stayed in Africa for so long. There, they didn’t encounter an environment that was overly dangerous for them. Elsewhere, though? There were territorial – and armed – creatures that were determined to stop them from taking their land.

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Proof that the Neanderthals were a fearsome enemy? Well, even though early modern humans first left Africa around 200,000 years ago, the Neanderthals didn’t actually disappear for another 150,000 years after that. Homo sapiens pushed into Neanderthal territory in Greece and Israel, too, before being forced back. But in the end, one species would emerge victorious.

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Archaeology reveals the ebb and flow of the two populations. Two skeletons – one Homo sapiens, one Neanderthal – have been found at the same site, although one is much older than the other. Even as recently as around 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals could still be discovered in the Middle East, as finds at the Kebara cave in Israel show.

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Why didn’t the two species just live alongside each other? Well, while they may have done for long periods – and the mixture of their genes shows that they must have been in contact – the Homo sapiens population alone must have grown. That meant they needed land, which forced them to fight over territory.

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And that conflict lasted, it seems, for tens of thousands of years. Both sides had the same sorts of equipment and likely fought in similar ways, meaning they were pretty much evenly matched. But the Neanderthals prevailed for most of the war.

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How did the Neanderthals do it? To begin with, they knew the land. They’d been there for many millennia, after all. They also had large eyes, which probably meant that they could see better than Homo sapiens in poor light. And to top it all off, they were strong and bulky. Basically, they were dangerous if you got close to them!

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But the Neanderthals did lose in the end, although we can’t say exactly why. Perhaps it was simply that Homo sapiens developed weapons that allowed them to strike the Neanderthals from a distance. They had bows, clubs that they could throw and equipment that allowed spears to be launched from further away.

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Another theory is based on what the two sides ate. After scientists studied isotopes left in skeletons from both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, they found that the latter group took almost all their protein from meat. Humans, on the other hand, had begun to consume fish. This broader diet helped produce bigger populations and could have led to the Neanderthals being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

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Whether it was down to a better diet or better weapons, though, the humans eventually destroyed the Neanderthals. But it didn’t happen quickly, so we shouldn’t imagine weak or peaceable enemies. On the contrary: humans had met fierce resistance that lasted for many thousands of years before the Neanderthals went extinct.

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It wasn’t all war, though, and the Neanderthals are still with us – although in a different way. Some people from Europe and Asia have within their genomes proof that humans and Neanderthals were able to mate. In other places, other “ghost” species have contributed their DNA to the human mosaic. So, spare a thought for these ancient people when you next take a DNA test. You may even find out you’re part Neanderthal yourself…

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And while it’s true that lots about the Neanderthals is strange to us – from their biology to their behaviors – that doesn’t mean we have nothing in common. In fact, one study from 2020 shows a rather unexpected similarity between them and us humans today. You may even be surprised when you find out just what we share.

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Quite a lot of things we know about Neanderthals come from DNA research. This has given us insight into how they looked and the likely structure of their society. There are still questions, though. Why, for instance, did Neanderthals go extinct while humans thrived? Well, mysteries like this have led scientists to try and explore just what makes us different to Neanderthals.

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One of the enduring questions facing those who study human evolution is just how much of a resemblance can be found between ancient Homo sapiens and their Neanderthal cousins. A particularly difficult area of investigation is the early life of the latter – including their metabolism and how they grow. Does it have any similarity to human development?

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The study we mentioned earlier was headed by Dr. Alessia Nava of both the Skeletal Biology Research Centre at the U.K.’s University of Kent and the Department of Maxillo-Facial Sciences in Rome’s Sapienza University. Other researchers came from different Italian and German institutions, so it was an international team. The work, meanwhile, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Their focus was a little corner of northeastern Italy, where archeologists had uncovered several fossilized teeth. The most recent of these was 50,000 years old, while the oldest is from 70,000 years ago. They were Neanderthal teeth and the chemicals and isotopes they contained could provide fascinating answers to how these ancient people lived.

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There were apparently three Neanderthal teeth in total. And they were compared to another ancient tooth that belonged to a human of the early Upper Paleolithic period. This meant analyzing their respective growth rates and chemical composition. And as the Neanderthal dentures were milk teeth, they could provide particular insight into the childhoods of their owners.

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Scientists trying to date trees apparently do so by analyzing rings in the trunks. These show the pattern of growth and can teach us about the climate of the time. Experts looking to date teeth can actually use a similar technique, according to the study. With the help of a microscope they can view tiny growth lines that help tell them how old the teeth are and the speed in which they grew.

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The other main part of the tooth investigation involved isotope analysis. This is a common technique in archeology when researchers want to know what ancient people ate, where they lived and what kinds of interactions they had with other communities. In this case, the isotope of particular interest was strontium.

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Strontium is an element found in water, rock and soil across the planet. Though the amount present can vary depending on a variety of geological processes. Humans consume strontium as part of their regular diet and it infuses their teeth and bones. This means the levels present in humans reflect the environment where they resided and can be used to tell what they were eating.

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Through the analysis of the Neanderthal teeth, the researchers were able to learn a lot about where and how they lived. This information can now be added to the growing understanding of our ancient cousins and their relationship with early humans. It also joins a long list of other data that shows just how similar we are to them.

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We already know quite a bit about other similarities between humans and Neanderthals. That’s partly because many people in the modern world have genetic traces from our Neanderthal ancestors. Up to 4 percent of the DNA in non-Africans comes from unions between humans and Neanderthals in prehistoric times, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

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It all starts with a common ancestor shared by humans and Neanderthals around half a million years in the past. The two species became separated by geography as humans began developing in Africa, while Neanderthals evolved across Europe and Asia. Humans eventually traveled to the Eurasian continent and that’s where they were reunited.

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When the two species began to breed together around 50,000 years ago it meant their DNA became mixed. And that’s why so many modern humans have Neanderthal ancestors. Genetic analysis has linked this DNA to everything from modern health conditions such as depression to protections from other diseases, The Verge notes.

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It certainly makes sense that the humans who first arrived in Eurasia would have wanted to get to know the natives. Neanderthals were already adapted to colder weather than that familiar to the African-born humans. It would have been advantageous to pick up some Neanderthal traits as soon as possible, and breeding was one way to achieve that.

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Modern researchers have sequenced DNA from Neanderthal bones and cross-referenced it with the traits and even diseases present in modern human populations. One place where they found similarities was in the skin. The genes for keratin – which is found in human skin, nails and hair – often sit next to Neanderthal genes.

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Though tougher skin may not have been the biggest advantage we received from our Neanderthal ancestors, even if they helped us out 50,000 years ago. They’re genes that can cause us to develop skin conditions when we spend too much time in the sun. Dry, scaly skin know as actinic kerastoses may be part of our Neanderthal inheritance.

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Another unfortunate effect of our Neanderthal DNA is in how it can cause blood to coagulate. For our ancient ancestors this was a form of protection against strange diseases when they moved to a new continent. Yet for modern humans it means an increased risk of having a stroke.

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Perhaps strangest of all is the connection between Neanderthal DNA and nicotine addiction. According to a 2016 study published in Science, Neanderthal DNA can make you more likely to be a smoker. But how could this be, given that tobacco plants weren’t even growing in Europe and Asia back then? Well, it may be something to do with addictive behavior in general, but it’s also a sign of how complicated these DNA relationships can be.

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One sequenced genome was from the so-called Vindija 33.19 bone fragment, which was found in a Croatian cave. It was over 50,000 years old and belonged to a Neanderthal woman whose genes were very similar to remains that were over 100,000 years old and found in Siberia. Max Planck Institute’s Kay Pruefer – who authored the study which appeared in Science in 2016 – talked to The Verge about its significance a year later. She said, “They are really so closely related that you cannot find any two people on this planet that are this close.”

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Researchers then traced down appearances by the Vindija genome in modern human genes. And they found an extraordinary array of connections to arthritis, cholesterol levels, vitamin D levels, bodyfat, eating disorders, schizophrenia and reactions to antipsychotic drugs. Venderbilt University evolutionary genomicist John Capra told The Verge that the gene’s “overall influence on any given person’s risk is really quite low.” But it’s astonishing to think it has any influence at all, right?

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There are also cosmetic similarities between Neanderthals and humans because of the genes that control hair and skin color, according to a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Contrary to some popular depictions, Neanderthals never actually had red hair, but they may have ranged from blonde to dark just like us. But what we don’t know is how humans continued to thrive even as Neanderthals became extinct.

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It may be something to do with that unexpected similarity between the Vindija Neanderthal and the Siberian remains. It suggests that there wasn’t much genetic diversity in Neanderthal populations, which in turn would have made them more susceptible to disease and deformity. Yet evidence suggests that early humans may have been a much more diverse species.

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If humans lived in larger social groups and traveled more, then there would have been much more opportunity to swap genes along with goods and ideas. University of Adelaide research fellow Bastien Llamas explained to The Verge that they may even have had a similar social structure to those we have today. This includes small family groups that had frequent contact with outsiders.

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Another theory claims that humans simply outnumbered Neanderthals by breeding much faster than them until they couldn’t compete. The latter group may also have been edged out when humans started domesticating dogs and using them for hunting – leaving limited food behind. It’s not certain though, which is another reason why scientists are so eager to study the links between the species even more.

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Many of the traits shared by humans and Neanderthals are shown in DNA, but there may also be behavioral similarities that we can study when exploring ancient remains. This includes things like the structure of family groups. The most recent study focused on early life and how young Neanderthals may not have been so different to human babies.

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Rather than just extracting DNA from the teeth, the scientists turned to different forms of research like the isotope analysis we mentioned earlier. This allowed them to discover new aspects of Neanderthal life that they compared with humans in the modern world. And what they found provides a fascinating insight into a subject that has generally been poorly understood.

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Specifically, the experts found similarities between the milk teeth of Neanderthals and humans that indicate something important about their early diet. They studied the combination of isotopes, the rate at which the teeth appear to have grown and the histomorphometry – a microscopic study. And the results suggested that, like humans, Neanderthals switched from milk to solid food at around five to six months.

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The introduction of solid food is a significant part of a young child’s life and it serves a very important purpose. According to the author of the 2020 report Dr. Alessia Nava, it occurs because the child needs a “more energetic food supply.” If Neanderthals were weaned at the same age as humans, it suggests they had similar energy requirements, body types and lifestyles to us.

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Interestingly, the weaning process is a common topic of study even among modern humans. Questions about how long it should take, cultural differences in approaches and the effect it has on babies generally are frequently asked. And it all centers on what is the best way to ensure the child has their nutritional needs met.

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When babies are born, they have very specific dietary requirements that can usually be met entirely by breast milk. It has the ideal combination of vitamins and other nutrients that a child needs as well as offering some protection from infections, cot death and childhood leukemia. According to the U.K.’s NHS, it even has implications for long term health – such as the likelihood of developing diabetes.

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Breastfeeding can also have health benefits for the mother as well. These things are especially true in the first six months, though the process can continue past this point. It’s not always that easy though; there are lots of things that can make breastfeeding more difficult. And that’s when formula comes in.

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Baby formula can be made from cows’ milk or other alternatives and is treated so it’s more suited to babies. Some of them come as liquids, while other types are a powder form that needs to be mixed with water. It doesn’t have all the advantages of breastmilk, but the formula still offers a healthy diet before the baby can be weaned.

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It’s at around six months that breast milk or the equivalent formula no longer meets all a baby’s needs, the NHS notes. That’s when solids can be introduced as “complementary feeding” in addition to breast milk. This doesn’t just mean the baby gets extra nutrients, but they also have to learn how to chew and swallow. Indeed, as any parent will tell you, it’s a big moment!

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The NHS adds that a combination of breast milk and solid food should be used until the baby is at least a year old. Though the point where mothers stop breastfeeding completely is a matter of personal preference. Experts recommend gradually introducing a variety of different tastes and textures to a baby early on to discourage fussy eating.

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The reason weaning occurs at around six months isn’t just a cultural norm. No, it actually has genuine physiological reasons relating to the energy required for human development, according to Nava. One of the 2020 study’s co-authors is University of Bologna researcher Dr. Federico Lugli, and he talked about the “high-energy demand of the growing human brain” in comparison to other primates.

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Yet another of the study’s authors – Dr. Stefano Benazzi – explained in the report that human and Neanderthal babies may have had “similar energy demands.” And that suggests that they would have had similar rates of growth. Amazingly, just this one little detail about weaning has much wider implications regarding Neanderthal development.

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So, we can now extrapolate that Neanderthal babies may have been a lot like human babies. They were probably a similar sort of size and grew in a similar way. It’s yet another piece of the puzzle, but it’s not all we learned from the research. It also suggests more about Neanderthal society and how and where they lived.

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The levels of strontium in the Neanderthal teeth indicated they spent most of their lives within that one area of northeast Italy. There were lots of caves in the area where they could shelter and plenty of food to eat, so it makes sense as a home. They must have been careful in how they used their resources and may even have used the same thought processes modern humans do when deciding to settle down.

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Neanderthals were living in that part of Italy up until 45,000 years ago. And they were doing so while living and growing much like modern humans do. It tells us more about their existence, but not about their extinction. The report seemingly ruled out the weaning process as a contributing factor to that, but there’s still such a lot we need to learn.

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This may not be the single conclusive piece of evidence that resolves all our questions about Neanderthals. But it still sheds a fascinating light on our ancient cousins. Every new thing we learn is an important step not just to understanding them, but filling in the gaps in our own history as a species. And it tells us more about what it means to be human.

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