The effect of trauma on Neanderthal culture: A mathematical analysis

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Traumatic lesions are often observed in ancient skeletal remains. Since ancient medical technology was immature, severely traumatized individuals may have frequently lost the physical ability for cultural skills that demand complex body movements. I develop a mathematical model to analyze the effect of trauma on cultural transmission and apply it to Neanderthal culture using Neanderthal fossil data. I estimate from the data that the proportion of adult individuals who suffered traumatic injuries before death was approximately 0.79–0.94, in which 0.37–0.52 were injured severely and 0.13–0.19 were injured before adulthood. Assuming that every severely traumatized individual and a quarter to a half of the other traumatized individuals lost the capacity for a cultural skill that demands complex control of the traumatized body part, I estimate that if an upper limb is associated with a cultural skill, each individual had to communicate closely with at least 1.5–2.6 individuals during adulthood to maintain the skill in Neanderthal society, and if a whole body is associated, at least 3.1–11.5 individuals were necessary. If cultural transmissions between experts and novices were inaccurate, or if low frequency skills easily disappeared from the population due to random drift, more communicable individuals were necessary. Since the community size of Neanderthals was very small, their high risk of injury may have inhibited the spread of technically difficult cultural skills in their society. It may be important to take this inhibition into consideration when we study Neanderthal culture and the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-100
Number of pages18
JournalHOMO- Journal of Comparative Human Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Mar
Externally publishedYes


  • Cultural transmission
  • Mathematical model
  • Modern behavior
  • SIR model
  • Social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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