Early humans 'did not kill deformed offspring'
The discovery of the oldest known infant born with a skull deformity hints that, contrary to popular belief, early humans might not have immediately abandoned or killed their abnormal offspring.
By Fiona Govan in Madrid
Last Updated: 8:59PM BST 31 Mar 2009
Studies on a human skull recently unearthed in Spain offer the earliest evidence that ancestors of Homo sapiens did not reject newborns with severe deformities but cared for them alongside their other children.
Scientists found the remains of several members of the early human species Homo heidelbergensis – thought to be a direct ancestor of the Neanderthals – in caves near Atapuerca, Spain, in 2001.
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Morning sickness 'increases the chance that child will have high IQ'They pieced together a 530,000-year-old fossil cranium and discovered it belonged to a child who lived to between five and 12 years old despite being born with a rare birth defect known as craniosynostosis, in which the skull segments close too early, producing facial deformities and interfering with brain development.
The condition affects fewer than 6 out of every 200,000 children born today.
The discovery marks the earliest example of a human skeleton with signs of a physical deformity that that might have made the individual dependent on others for survival.
Most mammals, including primates, sacrifice or abandon young born with crippling deformities, the study's authors said, leading scientists to assume until now that early man had behaved the same.
That the child survived so long in the harsh hunter-gatherer society suggests early hominids were more caring than previously thought.
"The individual survived more than five years, which suggests her condition was no impediment to receiving the same attention as any other child of the Pleistocene epoch," noted Ana Gracia Tellez, a palaeoanthropologist at Complutense University in Madrid, who led the research published this week in the US science magazine, Proceedings.