The Nature of Culture

Part of the series Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology pp 87-97


Childhood, Play and the Evolution of Cultural Capacity in Neanderthals and Modern Humans

  • April NowellAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Victoria Email author 

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The life history pattern of modern humans is characterized by the insertion of childhood and adolescent stages into the typical primate pattern. It is widely recognized that this slowing of the maturational process provides humans with additional years to learn, transmit, practice and modify cultural behaviors . In both human and non-human primates a significant amount of their respective dependency periods are spent in play . In contrast to modern humans, Neanderthals experienced shorter childhoods. This is significant as there is extensive psychological and neurobiological evidence that it is during infancy, childhood and adolescence that milestones in social and cognitive learning are reached and that play and play deprivation have a direct impact on this development. Faster maturation rates and thus shorter childhoods relative to modern humans lessen the impact of learning through play on the connectivity of the brain . In the context of play behavior, humans are unique in that adult humans play more than adults of any other species and they alone engage in fantasy play. Fantasy play is part of a package of symbol-based cognitive abilities that includes self-awareness , language , and theory of mind. Its benefits include creativity, behavioral plasticity , imagination , apprenticeship and planning. Differences in the nature of symbolic material culture of Neanderthals and modern humans suggest that Neanderthals were not capable of engaging in human-grade fantasy play.


Middle Paleolithic Upper Paleolithic Life history Brain Behavioral plasticity Cognitive development Fantasy Imagination Archaeology of children