Guest commentary by David Middleton
In addition to an email from Rush Holt encouraging me to vote in the midterm elections (I already voted against every Democrat on the ballot), The American Association for the Advancement of Science in America clued me into this fascinating article:
Neanderthal children shivered and suffered in ancient Europe
By Ann Gibbons Oct. 31, 2018 , 2:05 PM
Pity the poor Neanderthal mother: She had to nurse her children through colder winters and more illnesses than the mothers of most prehistoric modern humans in Europe, according to a new study of the teeth of two Neanderthal kids who lived 250,000 years ago in France. And both Neanderthal toddlers suffered from repeated lead exposure—the earliest known evidence of lead poisoning in members of the human family. The study offers a startlingly intimate view of the lives of ancient children.
The study is “mind blowing” because it gives such a detailed record of how harsh winters, the water supply, and nursing duration can influence growth in early childhood, says paleoanthropologist Leslea Hlusko of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not part of the team. The researchers “provide powerful insight into some of the most intimate moments of life—the relationship between the Neanderthal as a baby and its mama.”
Researchers have long known that Neanderthals, with their barrel chests and robust limbs, were well-adapted for survival in the frigid temperatures of Europe, where their fossils date back more than 400,000 years. But it’s been difficult to tie climate events to individual Neanderthals’ lives or even to specific fossil sites.
Now, researchers have shown the direct effects of climate on the lives of two young children…
Who would have guessed? Neanderthal children in Europe shivered and suffered during the penultimate Pleistocene glacial stage (ice age to non-geologists). Who could have possibly guessed that primitive human-ish children, with no adequate housing, would have been cold during the ICE AGE? Pleistocene glacial stages were only just about the coldest climates of the entire Phanerozoic Eon… With such low atmospheric CO2 levels that C3 plants were literally starving. The plight of the ice age Neanderthal children and C3 plants almost make Gorebal Warming and CO2 greening sound like good things. But the “experts” say otherwise.
Is there ever a time when climate change is good for children? Is there some child-friendly Goldilocks climate?
And why in the heck were Neanderthals poisoning their children with lead? They hadn’t invented guns back then. They didn’t need radiation shielding. No pencils. Did they decorate their caves with lead-based paints?
Repeated lead exposures during childhood in the two Neanderthals are the earliest such evidence in hominin remains. The intensity of lead signals in prominent bands exceeds levels elsewhere in the teeth by a factor of 10. These high and acute lead lines are indicative of short-term exposure from ingestion of contaminated food or water or inhalation from fires containing lead (27). Lead can also come from mothers’ milk (28), but the divergent patterns of barium and lead in Payre 6 and the acute lead bands in both individuals suggest that mothers’ milk was not the primary source of exposure. It is plausible that the lead in Payre 6 came from nonmilk liquids beginning at ~2.5 months of age, increasing with solid food consumption in the winter from 9 months of age and, again, in the late winter/early spring of the following year. At least two lead mines are located within 25 km of the site (29), consistent with estimates of routine foraging distances (11). Periods of lead exposure during the childhoods of these two French Neanderthals are remarkable, as biogenic lead bands were not apparent in the ~100-ka-old Belgian individual discussed above, and decades of research have shown that there is no safe level for lead in humans and other animals.
Lead exposures did not result in the formation of obvious developmental defects in the Payre Neanderthals’ enamel. We found a marked defect in Payre 6 coincident with a short-term barium elevation at approximately 701 days of age (Fig. 3, A and B). It appears that during the coldest time of winter, this young individual experienced heightened skeletal remineralization. Trace elements can be released into the bloodstream from skeletal stores, exemplified by the phenomenon of lead mobilization in parallel with calcium during human lactation (28). The pattern of acute barium elevation coincident with a developmental defect in Payre 6 is akin to that seen in captive rhesus macaques after they had ceased nursing (17). Several of these macaques lost weight during severe illnesses, mobilizing trace elements that had been stored in their bones, which were recorded in concurrently forming tooth enamel and dentine. While the Payre 6 individual appeared to have continued nursing throughout the disruption at ~701 days of age, the short spike in barium concentration and the presence of a strong enamel disruption are more consistent with acute illness and associated weight loss than a transient increase in maternal milk consumption.
The approach detailed here allows more robust explorations of Neanderthal paleobiology and prehistoric environmental conditions than conventional assessment of associated fauna or geological signatures (30). Broader applications may also help to clarify the purported relationship between climate variation and technological innovation in members of the genus Homo (1, 2). Although it is unclear whether and how cold stress or neurotoxicant exposure routinely affected the health of Neanderthals, scholars have noted the frequent occurrence of developmental defects in their teeth (23, 31). Several common explanations for these defects, including weaning stress and illness, can now be probed through developmentally informed barium mapping. While diagenetic modification may prohibit characterizations of teeth interred near naturally occurring barium sources, the quantification of diagenetically resistant oxygen isotopes provides complementary insights into the lives of young hominins.
Did Neanderthal mining practices cause the climate change that made their children shiver and suffer? Unfortunately the lead mine reference is from 1961, in French and I can’t find it. Presumably these were not Neanderthal mines. Just a notation that lead mines were within a standard Neanderthal commute from this archaeological resource play.
“Traditionally, people thought lead exposure occurred in populations only after industrialization, but these results show it happened prehistorically, before lead had been widely released into the environment,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Christine Austin, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Our team plans to analyze more teeth from our ancestors and investigate how lead exposures may have affected their health and how that may relate to how our bodies respond to lead today.”
If they only had a Neanderthal EPA to protect them from themselves and the ice age.
All sarcasm aside… It’s a very interesting paper!
McConnell, Joseph R., Andrew I. Wilson, Andreas Stohl, Monica M. Arienzo, Nathan J. Chellman, Sabine Eckhardt, Elisabeth M. Thompson, A. Mark Pollard, Jørgen Peder Steffensen. “Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2018, 201721818; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1721818115
Smith, T.M. et al., “Wintertime stress, nursing, and lead exposure in Neanderthal children,” Science Advances (2018).