Research by the University in Cova Negra, key to discovering that Neanderthal groups cared for children with Down syndrome

Valentín Villaverde, in 1989, with the cranial fragment from which it was concluded that Neanderthals cared for their children with Down syndrome and cooperated with each other.

Research conducted by the University of Valencia (UV) in the Cova Negra (Xàtiva) since 1981 has recovered numerous human remains of Neanderthals with which to reconstruct their way of life. A recent analysis of a cranial fragment by an international scientific team using a computerised axial tomography (CAT) scan - which allows the non-destructive visualisation of the interior and exterior of objects - concluded that this individual had Down syndrome and was cared for by the group without reciprocation, suggesting an evolution based on cooperation. Valentín Villaverde, emeritus professor of Prehistory at the UV, was the researcher who directed the excavation in which this fragment was extracted in 1989.

"Current technology has allowed us to analyse the fragment and draw conclusions that were unthinkable 35 years ago", says Villaverde, regarding the importance of the fossil remains from this cave, inhabited between 300,000 and 60,000 years ago. The publication of the analysis, in which the UV professor also participates, was released last week in the prestigious journal Science Advances and concludes that Neanderthals cared for children, not necessarily their own, indicating that the group cooperated with one another.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the Neanderthal assemblage recovered in Cova Negra is the high number of infant remains, as well as the scarce presence of anthropic marks, in contrast to what has been noted in other sites of the Iberian Peninsula and in France, and the existence, on the contrary, of an infant cranial fragment with marks of a carnivorous animal", the prehistorian highlighted.

Villaverde stresses that Cova Negra, owned by the City Council of Xàtiva, is one of the most complete sites of the Middle and Upper Pleistocene in Spain, with 25 pieces of human remains, artefacts such as flint tools and animal bones, which makes this cave one of the richest in the Iberian Peninsula in terms of Neanderthal fossils found.

Valentín Villaverde began directing the excavations in 1981. "At that time, I was working on my doctoral thesis, focused on the study of the archaeological collections from the campaigns conducted in the 1950s. These excavations lasted until 1991. The main objectives were to obtain an updated view of the site’s stratigraphy and sequence, and to define the Neanderthal occupations, based on the spatial study and distribution of faunal and lithic remains", he says.

Declared an Asset of Cultural Interest, the first excavations at the site date back to 1928 and were led by Gonzalo Viñes, who, upon discovering a Neanderthal parietal bone, ensured that this cave became part of the list of Neanderthal sites in Spain. A second excavation in the 1950s brought further results, but it was the campaigns led by Valentín Villaverde that yielded the most significant findings. Between 2013 and 2017, under the co-direction of Aleix Eixea, also a professor of Prehistory at the UV, a second phase of excavations was carried out to improve the biostratigraphic information by obtaining micromammals and bats. The participation of a large interdisciplinary team has been key to the progress of research during all these years. All this work has been carried out in collaboration with the Museum of Prehistory of Valencia.

Publicising the cave and its importance

The initiative to publicise the cave arose from an exhibition entitled "From Neanderthals to Cro-Magnons: The beginnings of human settlement in the Valencian lands", as part of the programme of activities carried out during the celebration of the five centuries of the UV, recalls Valentín Villaverde, who also stresses that "since then, various materials have been published and significant advances have been made in the cultural characterisation of Neanderthal occupations at the site".

The cave is one of the key features of the Museum of Prehistory of Valencia and much of the room dedicated to Neanderthals is enriched by the findings and research carried out. As part of the museum’s outreach efforts, guided tours to the site have been organised for the general public and, on occasions, for specialists during international meetings in Valencia on the Quaternary.


  • Interior of the Cova Negra of Xàtiva, located in the Estret de les Aigües of the Albaida River.