They have an unwarranted image as brutish and uncaring, but new research has revealed just how knowledgeable and effective Neanderthal healthcare was.
The study, by the University of York, reveals that Neanderthal healthcare was uncalculated and highly effective -- challenging our notions that they were brutish compared to modern humans.
The researchers argue that the care provided was widespread and should be seen as a "compassionate and knowledgeable response to injury and illness."
It is well known that Neanderthals sometimes provided care for the injured, but new analysis by the team at York suggest they were genuinely caring of their peers, regardless of the level of illness or injury, rather than helping others out of self-interest.
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Sick Neanderthal’s were cared for by the group. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Lead author, Dr Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the Archaeology of Human Origin at the University of York, said: "Our findings suggest Neanderthals didn't think in terms of whether others might repay their efforts, they just responded to their feelings about seeing their loved ones suffering."
Most of the individuals archaeologists know about had a severe injury of some kind, with detailed pathologies highlighting a range of debilitating conditions and injuries.
In some cases the injuries occurred long before death and would have required monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care, the study suggests.
Analysis of a male aged around 25-40 at time of death revealed a catalogue of poor heath, including a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders.
His condition would have sapped his strength over the final 12 months of life and severely restricted his ability to contribute to the group.
Yet, the authors of the study argue he remained part of the group as his articulated remains were subsequently carefully buried.
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The skull of the Neandertal known as Shanidar 1 show signs of a blow to the head received at an early age. (Image: Courtesy of Erik Trinkaus)
Dr Spikins added: "We argue that the social significance of the broader pattern of healthcare has been overlooked and interpretations of a limited or calculated response to healthcare have been influenced by preconceptions of Neanderthals as being 'different' and even brutish. However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture.
"The very similarity of Neanderthal healthcare to that of later periods has important implications. We argue that organized, knowledgeable and caring healthcare is not unique to our species but rather has a long evolutionary history."
The study was partially supported by the John Templeton Foundation and published in the journal World Archaeology .
Little-known facts about Neanderthal people and how they lived
Little-known facts about Neanderthal people and how they lived
The Neanderthals are seen as the link between our current human form and the apes we evolved from. They haven’t been around for a long time, but scientists have been able to look at their ancient remains and make links to us. We might view them as brainless cavemen, focused on nothing more than hunting, but there is far more to the Neanderthals than meets the eye.
They also showed a lot of compassion and ingenuity during their time on this planet. Neanderthals weren’t the big brutes we once thought they were and they had a softer side, caring for people who they considered to be family. They were much shorter than we are, but their bodies were perfect for the jobs they had to do, which was mainly hunting.
Neanderthals were built for stamina and could endure long hunts out in the wilderness for days, while they had the agility to escape from the many dangers inhabiting their world. We’re looking at the link between us, and the results are amazing. Here are some interesting facts you may not know about Neanderthal people.
Ancient Incest Uncovered in Neanderthal Genome
Data from fossil toe bone points to surprising interbreeding among early humans.
Data obtained from a Neanderthal woman's toe bone points to incest and inbreeding among early humans, an international genetics team reported on Wednesday.
The fossil's genetic map, or genome, reported from Denisova cave in Siberia's Altai Mountains dates to more than 50,000 years ago. The cave was home at separate times to both Neanderthals and the so-called Denisovans, two sister families of now-extinct early humans. (See also "New Type of Ancient Human Found.")
Adding to increasing evidence of a tangled human family tree, the new Neanderthal genome study released by the journal Nature also suggests that another previously unknown archaic human species shared its genes with some of our ancestors. The study authors suggest that it was Homo erectus, one of the earliest human species, which first arose around 1.8 million years ago. (See also "Why Am I a Neanderthal?")
The report, led by Germany's Kay Prüfer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, builds on recent prehistoric genetics results that argue against theories that modern humans arose completely from one "out of Africa" migration more than 60,000 years ago that spread worldwide without mating with other early humans.
Instead, it looks like early modern humans sometimes mated with archaic human cousins they met along the way. People of non-African origin broadly have genes that are 1.5 percent to 2.1 percent Neanderthal, according to the study, with proportions higher among Asians and Native Americans. Similarly, 5 percent of the genome of people of Australian and Papua New Guinea descent looks Denisovan, as does 0.2 percent of the genes of people from Asia.
"We don't have one ancestral group, but proportions of ancestral groups," says computational biologist Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not part of the study team. "I think they make a convincing argument."
"In my view, this paper heralds the completion of the Neanderthal genome project in terms of mapping an entire genome," says paleontologist and human origins expert Richard Potts of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "That's pretty cool science."
In 2010, the study's toe bone first turned up at Denisova Cave, where excellent fossil preservation conditions had allowed for the genetic mapping of the then-surprising Denisovan finger bone found in 2008. Gene tests showed the toe belonged to a Neanderthal, and Prüfer and colleagues began calculating its full genetic map.
The results show that it belonged to a woman whose closely matched chromosomes suggest that her parents were closely related, perhaps half-siblings or an uncle and niece (or aunt and nephew).
This incest finding "is more of an anecdote," says evolutionary biologist Mattias Jakobsson of Sweden's Uppsala University, who was not part of the study. "The more interesting observation would be if this mating behavior was common among Neandertals and/or Denisovans compared to [early modern humans] at that time," he said by email.
Over time, such inbreeding has been shown to be bad for the genetic fitness of most species, including people, throughout the animal world.
Comparison of the Neanderthal genome with a previously sequenced Denisovan one shows that both early species were far more limited, scattered, and isolated than early modern humans.
The study raises the possibility that both species were on their way to going extinct before early modern humans arrived on the scene.
The findings suggest that Neanderthals and Denisovans split off from earlier human species around 600,000 years ago and split from each other perhaps 400,000 years ago.
The accuracy of the Neanderthal genome actually allows the researchers to proclaim that the Neanderthal found in Denisova Cave is less closely related to modern people than to a Neanderthal found at a site in the Caucasus.
Only 96 genes responsible for making proteins in cells are different between modern humans and Neanderthals. Intriguingly, some of the gene differences involve ones involved in both immune responses and the development of brain cells in people.
"The suggestion of gene flow from Homo erectus to Denisovans is also interesting," says Potts. "I think the evidence of this event is mounting."
In the study, the authors report their evidence from a deep comparison of the new Neanderthal genome and the Denisovan one.
While Denisovans are more closely related to Neanderthals than modern humans are, as much as eight percent of their total genome comes from a "super archaic" (in Prüfer's words) early human species at least 900,000 years old, most likely Homo erectus.
"The promise of vastly growing knowledge about what distinguishes people today from Neanderthals, and other extinct cousins, mirrors people's interest in what makes them tick and what they pass on genetically," Potts says.
"Frankly, I'm delighted by the idea that people can begin to think about themselves as connected to other species, extinct smart bipeds different from themselves."
Ancient Bones That Tell a Story of Compassion
While it is a painful truism that brutality and violence are at least as old as humanity, so, it seems, is caring for the sick and disabled.
And some archaeologists are suggesting a closer, more systematic look at how prehistoric people — who may have left only their bones — treated illness, injury and incapacitation. Call it the archaeology of health care.
The case that led Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham of Australian National University in Canberra to this idea is that of a profoundly ill young man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam and was buried, as were others in his culture, at a site known as Man Bac.
Almost all the other skeletons at the site, south of Hanoi and about 15 miles from the coast, lie straight. Burial 9, as both the remains and the once living person are known, was laid to rest curled in the fetal position. When Ms. Tilley, a graduate student in archaeology, and Dr. Oxenham, a professor, excavated and examined the skeleton in 2007 it became clear why. His fused vertebrae, weak bones and other evidence suggested that he lies in death as he did in life, bent and crippled by disease.
They gathered that he became paralyzed from the waist down before adolescence, the result of a congenital disease known as Klippel-Feil syndrome. He had little, if any, use of his arms and could not have fed himself or kept himself clean. But he lived another 10 years or so.
They concluded that the people around him who had no metal and lived by fishing, hunting and raising barely domesticated pigs, took the time and care to tend to his every need.
“There’s an emotional experience in excavating any human being, a feeling of awe,” Ms. Tilley said, and a responsibility “to tell the story with as much accuracy and humanity as we can.”
This case, and other similar, if less extreme examples of illness and disability, have prompted Ms. Tilley and Dr. Oxenham to ask what the dimensions of such a story are, what care for the sick and injured says about the culture that provided it.
The archaeologists described the extent of Burial 9’s disability in a paper in Anthropological Science in 2009. Two years later, they returned to the case to address the issue of health care head on. “The provision and receipt of health care may therefore reflect some of the most fundamental aspects of a culture,” the two archaeologists wrote in The International Journal of Paleopathology.
And earlier this year, in proposing what she calls a “bioarchaeology of care,” Ms. Tilley wrote that this field of study “has the potential to provide important — and possibly unique — insights into the lives of those under study.” In the case of Burial 9, she says, not only does his care indicate tolerance and cooperation in his culture, but suggests that he himself had a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live. Without that, she says, he could not have stayed alive.
“I’m obviously not the first archaeologist” to notice evidence of people who needed help to survive in stone age or other early cultures, she said. Nor does her method “come out of the blue.” It is based on and extends previous work.
Among archaeological finds, she said, she knows “about 30 cases in which the disease or pathology was so severe, they must have had care in order to survive.” And she said there are certainly more such cases to be described. “I am totally confident that there are almost any number of case studies where direct support or accommodation was necessary.”
Such cases include at least one Neanderthal, Shanidar 1, from a site in Iraq, dating to 45,000 years ago, who died around age 50 with one arm amputated, loss of vision in one eye and other injuries. Another is Windover boy from about 7,500 years ago, found in Florida, who had a severe congenital spinal malformation known as spina bifida, and lived to around age 15. D. N. Dickel and G. H. Doran, from Florida State University wrote the original paper on the case in 1989, and they concluded that contrary to popular stereotypes of prehistoric people, “under some conditions life 7,500 years ago included an ability and willingness to help and sustain the chronically ill and handicapped.”
In another well-known case, the skeleton of a teenage boy, Romito 2, found at a site in Italy in the 1980s, and dating to 10,000 years ago, showed a form of severe dwarfism that left the boy with very short arms. His people were nomadic and they lived by hunting and gathering. He didn’t need nursing care, but the group would have had to accept that he couldn’t run at the same pace or participate in hunting in the same way others did.
Ms. Tilley gained her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1982 and worked in the health care industry studying treatment outcomes before coming to the study of archaeology. She said her experience influenced her interest in ancient health care.
What she proposes, in papers with Dr. Oxenham and in a dissertation in progress, is a standard four-stage method for studying ancient remains of disabled or ill individuals with an eye to understanding their societies. She sets up several stages of investigation: first, establishing what was wrong with a person second, describing the impact of the illness or disability given the way of life followed in that culture and third, concluding what level of care would have needed.
A paralyzed person, for example, would need “direct support” similar to nursing care while someone like Romito 2 would need “accommodation,” that is to say tolerance of his limitations and some assistance.
Debra L. Martin, associate professor of biological anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, invited Ms. Tilley to write “The Bioarchaeology of Care” for a special report on new directions in bioarchaeology published this year in the Archaeological Record, the magazine of the Society for American Archaeology.
She said in an e-mail that what Ms. Tilley proposes “is a very nicely integrated approach” to using all the available evidence. “Lorna’s innovative approach,” she said, “has provided a way to move from the bones of individuals to thinking about the community as a whole.”
The fourth stage in the proposed method is where the gathered facts form the basis for interpretation. Extrapolating from hard evidence drawn from human remains to conclusions about how people lived is at the heart of bioarchaeology, a word coined in the 1970s by Jane E. Buikstra at Arizona State University to describe using the methods of physical anthropology, which concentrates on the bones, and those of archaeology, which concentrates on the culture and its artifacts, to try to “people the past,” as she phrases it, to put ancient people into a cultural context.
Dr. Buikstra, director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research, who currently concentrates on the co-evolution of humans and their diseases, said that “People have from time to time across the years tried to attribute caring and caring for” to ancient humans. But, she said, “getting into the minds of ancient people” is always difficult. Ms. Tilley’s methods for how and when to make that kind of leap would base such attempts on standards used today for evaluating health care needs for severely disabled people.
Dr. Martin, who studies violence and illness as well, gave an example from her own work of the sort of case that can benefit from Ms. Tilley’s approach. The case is described in a coming book, “The Bioarchaeology of Individuals.” A skeleton of a young woman about 18 years old from a site on the Arabian Peninsula more than 4,000 years old indicated that the woman had a neuromuscular disease, perhaps polio.
“Her condition likely made it difficult for her to walk,” Dr. Martin wrote in an e-mail. “She had exceedingly thin arm and leg bones with very little buildup of normal muscle attachments.” She probably received round-the-clock care, Dr. Martin concluded.
But one problem that she had was apparently not a result of the disease. The teeth that she had were full of cavities, and she was “missing teeth from abscesses and periodontal disease.”
Those who cared for the young woman may have been too kind, Dr. Martin said. Her people grew dates, and, “Perhaps to make her happy, they fed her a lot of sticky, gummy dates, which eventually just rotted her teeth out, unusual for someone so young.”
The first human fossil assemblage described as Neanderthal was discovered in 1856 in the Feldhofer Cave of the Neander Valley, near Düsseldorf, Germany. The fossils, discovered by lime workers at a quarry, consisted of a robust cranial vault with a massive arched brow ridge, minus the facial skeleton, and several limb bones. The limb bones were robustly built, with large articular surfaces on the ends (that is, surfaces at joints that are typically covered with cartilage) and bone shafts that were bowed front to back. The remains of large extinct mammals and crude stone tools were discovered in the same context as the human fossils. Upon first examination, the fossils were deemed by anatomists as representing the oldest known human beings to inhabit Europe. Others disagreed and labeled the fossils H. neanderthalensis, a species distinct from H. sapiens. Some anatomists suggested that the bones were those of modern humans and that the unusual form was the result of pathology. This flurry of scientific debate coincided with the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin, which provided a theoretical foundation upon which fossils could be viewed as a direct record of life over geologic time. When two fossil skeletons that resembled the original Feldhofer remains were discovered at Spy, Belgium, in 1886, the pathology explanation for the curious morphology of the bones was abandoned.
During the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century, additional fossils that resembled the Neanderthals from the Feldhofer and Spy caves were discovered, including those now in Belgium (Naulette), Croatia (Krapina), France (Le Moustier, La Quina, La Chapelle-aux-Saints and Pech de L’Azé), Italy (Guattari and Archi), Hungary (Subalyuk), Israel (Tabūn), the Czech Republic (Ochoz, Kůlna, and Sĭpka), the Crimea (Mezmaiskaya), Uzbekistan (Teshik-Tash), and Iraq (Shanidar). More recently, Neanderthals were discovered in the Netherlands (North Sea coast), Greece (Lakonis and Kalamakia), Syria (Dederiyeh), Spain (El Sidrón), and Russian Siberia (Okladnikov) and at additional sites in France (Saint Césaire, L’Hortus, and Roc de Marsal, near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac), Israel (Amud and Kebara), and Belgium (Scladina and Walou). Well over 200 individuals are represented, including over 70 juveniles. These sites range from nearly 200,000 years ago or earlier to 36,000 years before present, and some groups may have survived in the southern Iberian Peninsula until nearly 30,000–35,000 years ago or even possibly 28,000–24,000 years ago in Gibraltar. Most of the sites, however, are dated to approximately 120,000 to 35,000 years ago. The complete disappearance of the Neanderthals corresponds to, or precedes, the most recent glacial maximum—a time period of intense cold spells and frequent fluctuations in temperature beginning around 29,000 years ago or earlier—and the increasing presence and density in Eurasia of early modern human populations, and possibly their hunting dogs, beginning as early as 40,000 years ago.
DNA Study Points to Prehistoric Hanky-Panky With Neanderthals
Ancient Eurasia saw more than a little prehistoric hanky-panky, a new study shows. It finds the ancestors of modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and another type of prehuman not just once, but several times.
And the genes of these ancient Neanderthals and Denisovans live on today, in modern Europeans, Asians and in the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and other Australasian islands.
The study, published in the journal Science, helps confirm earlier theories that human ancestors didn’t interbreed with other hominin species until after they left Africa. There’s a barely a trace of Neanderthal in Africans living today.
But once they started moving across Europe and Asia, they not only lived side by side, they had a few run-ins.
"Different populations of people have slightly different levels of Neanderthal ancestry, which likely means that humans repeatedly ran into Neanderthals as they spread across Europe," said Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who worked on the project and who was one of the first scientists to sequence the Neanderthal genome.
"Substantial amounts of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA can now be robustly identified in the genomes of present-day Melanesians."
Paabo and colleagues sequenced DNA from 1,500 people from various ethnic groups around the world for the project.
They compared these sequences with those found in the remains of Neanderthals, who co-existed with modern humans in what is now Europe until about 30,000 years ago. They also used DNA taken from what are called the Denisovans — early humans identified through tiny scraps of bone and tooth found in a remote cave in Siberia in 2008.
They found patterns of inheritance that might help them track the movements of such early humans across the globe.
"Most people know back a few generations, maybe five generations," said David Merriwether of Binghamton University in New York, who worked on the study. "But where did we come from before that? That's what we want to find out."
This study gives some clues that show a lot of interaction between human subspecies back in prehistoric days.
"Substantial amounts of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA can now be robustly identified in the genomes of present-day Melanesians, allowing new insights into human evolutionary history," they wrote.
"I think that people (and Neanderthals and Denisovans) liked to wander," said Benjamin Vernot, a University of Washington postdoctoral student in genomic sciences who helped lead the project. "And yes, studies like this can help us track where they wandered."
They found patterns that show there wasn’t just one random coupling that led to a single ancestor of many people alive today, but several.
"Consequently, all non-African populations derive around 2 percent of their ancestry from Neanderthals, whereas substantial levels of Denisovan ancestry (around 2-4 percent) are only found in Oceanic populations," they wrote.
"Denisovans are the only species of archaic humans about whom we know less from fossil evidence and more from where their genes show up in modern humans."
"We find significant evidence of Denisovan ancestry in our Melanesian samples, with admixture proportions varying between 1.9 percent and 3.4 percent."
This supports the theory that the ancestors of modern Melanesians came across what is now western Russia into Asia and then migrated across the vast oceans to where they live now.
"Denisovans are the only species of archaic humans about whom we know less from fossil evidence and more from where their genes show up in modern humans," said Joshua Akey of the University of Washington, who led the study.
“We find evidence for an additional pulse of Neanderthal admixture in Europeans, East Asians, and South Asians compared to Melanesians,” the researchers wrote.
“Collectively, these data suggest Neanderthal admixture occurred at least three distinct times in modern human history.”
What the DNA cannot tell us is how those matings occurred. It may have been rape, conquest or something more complex.
“It was apparently separate events, so not just one single happy party at some point,” evolutionary biologist Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in Australia, who was not part of the new study, told the journal Science.
Science also cannot say why modern humans outlived the Neanderthals, Denisovans and perhaps other early humans yet to be discovered. It's possible modern human ancestors killed them off, but equally possible that a small genetic advantage simply allowed modern humans to outbreed their cousins.
Genetically, the Denisovans seem similar to Neanderthals. Bones show that the Neanderthals were intelligent but stockier than modern humans. Other evidence shows that they used art and made jewelry, and DNA suggests that they may have given humans at least some immune system advantages, as well as red hair and a tendency to allergies.
Whatever DNA survived probably offers an advantage, or else it would have been weeded out by natural selection, the researchers say.
Big stretches of modern human DNA from people around the world are clear of any Denisovan or Neanderthal sequences, the researchers said. These are regions associated with language, as well as the tendency to autism.
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Spikins has previously researched the motives of Neanderthal health care. In an attempt to debunk the myth that Neanderthals lacked the compassion of modern Homo sapiens, for instance, she describes one individual found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq who survived for a decade or more despite a withered arm and head injuries that would have probably resulted in sight and hearing loss. His survival would almost certainly have been impossible unless other group members had provided him with food, water, and shelter—a level of altruism not typically associated with the Neanderthal mind, Spikins says. She has now charted many other examples of individuals who could not have lived through their illnesses without the help of others.
Her latest paper builds on this analysis by examining some of the specific medical skills involved in such a level of care. In the vast array of bones that archaeologists have uncovered, the fractures had often healed without significant deformities, suggesting that they had been set with a primitive splint. Many of these wounds, such as the severe head traumas and broken ribs, probably would have resulted in significant blood loss and increased risk of infection, yet the injured individuals survived long enough for the bones to heal, and their remains lack signs of severe infection—which, Spikins says, would be apparent in lumps and bumps on the bone edges.
All of this suggests that Neanderthals had some means of dressing wounds. Spikins doesn’t know exactly what those methods were, but she points out that bandages can be made from animal parts. Some Inuit groups today, for instance, use lemming skin to dress wounds and boils, since it is said to be particularly good at adhering to human flesh. It’s feasible that Neanderthals would have also come across similar methods to stem the blood flow and to keep the wound (relatively) hygienic, Spikins says.
Neanderthals may have even been in command of some natural drugs to speed their recovery. One of the other individuals in the Shanidar Cave was found to be buried with numerous plants that are believed to have medicinal properties, including yarrow, a natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent that appears to accelerate wound healing. As a common folk cure, it is also said to reduce fevers and alleviate the symptoms of viral infections such as influenza, and to reduce flatulence and stomach cramps. Perhaps this was a sign of the health care he had received during his lifetime.
Supporting this hypothesis, Karen Hardy, of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has spent the past six years analyzing the calcified plaque left on Neanderthal teeth, which can carry tiny traces of the foods they ate. In the first of these experiments, Hardy found the chemical signatures of yarrow and chamomile, which is also thought to be an anti-inflammatory agent. Since these plants taste extremely bitter, and have little nutritional value by themselves, she hypothesizes that they were instead used for self-medication.
One of Hardy’s later plaque analyses of another Neanderthal individual revealed traces of poplar, which contains the natural painkiller salicylic acid, and the mold penicillium, the source of one of our most successful antibiotics. While we can’t be sure that Neanderthals deliberately ingested these substances for medicinal purposes, it’s telling that this individual suffered from a severe tooth abscess. Within the plaque, Hardy also found traces of microsporidia parasites, which cause acute diarrhea in humans. “The best guess is that it had to do with one or both of these infections,” she told me.
At least one form of Neanderthal health care seems more certain: midwifery. Skeletal remains demonstrate that, like anatomically modern humans, the size and shape of a Neanderthal baby’s head and the mother’s pelvis would have made unassisted childbirth dangerous. “The only way those heads could have got out of the birth canal is with that characteristic ‘twist’ which happens with modern humans at birth,” says Spikins—a maneuver that presents a high risk without assistance. From this, we can be fairly certain that they had developed some kind of midwifery to reduce the mortality rates, she says.
These findings don’t just sketch out a new branch to the history of medicine, showing that Neanderthal health care was remarkably similar to our own ancestors’ strategies the research might also help us to better understand Neanderthals’ long-term adaptations to their environment. Many Neanderthals lived in colder and more arid regions across Western and Central Europe and some parts of Asia, where they ventured as far north as the Altai Mountains in Siberia. In the more northern areas, the main food source would have been hulking great creatures such as mammoths and woolly rhinos, the hides of which were so thick that they could only be hunted with spears at a dangerously close range. In southern regions such as modern-day Spain, meanwhile, Neanderthals appear to have chased ibex over mountainous terrains, which came with a serious risk of falls. That’s not to mention the many predators—including hyenas and saber-toothed cats—in these regions that posed their own dangers.
As a result of these challenges, injury rates were extraordinarily high, with one estimate suggesting that between 79 and 94 percent of Neanderthals sustained at least one traumatic injury in their lifetime. Spikins believes it simply would not have been possible for them to have adapted and spread so widely in these areas if they had not found the means to treat serious injuries. “As primates, we’re not naturally adapted to hunting large animals,” she explains of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens alike. “But health care allowed groups to sustain much higher rates of injury than they would otherwise be able to sustain, so they move into an ecological niche that they weren’t really well-suited for.”
Spikins hypothesizes that—as with modern humans—Neanderthal health care could have also allowed greater cultural complexity to flourish, by enabling the older generation to share their knowledge with younger members of the group. “The whole population structure changes with health care, so you have more members who are older,” she says that cumulative knowledge might have allowed them to develop more sophisticated ways of hunting, for instance. She would also be interested to investigate whether midwifery allowed for the continued evolution of the brain. “We’d really hope that this study could prompt further thoughts about the ways these cultural practices can impact on our biological evolution,” she says.
Other archaeologists I spoke with were intrigued by Spikins’s paper, although they caution that we shouldn’t yet draw firm conclusions from the available evidence, which is still somewhat circumstantial. We can only infer so much from the way their bones healed, rather than material artifacts demonstrating the specific practices involved, and it is impossible to know for certain why those Neanderthals were ingesting those bitter-tasting plants.
“There is little hard evidence—most of it is presumed,” says April Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada. She points out that many other animals have been known to self-medicate to a limited degree—and so it makes perfect sense that Neanderthals would be “equally if not more knowledgeable” of the medicinal benefits of plants. But she would have preferred more direct comparisons with anatomically modern humans and other primates to see whether the health-care adaptations differed between groups. It would have also been interesting to see whether the specific injuries, and the potential treatments, depended on the location and the particular challenges that it presented, and whether they changed over time. Did the Neanderthals in the north suffer from different maladies compared to those in Southern Europe?
In principle, however, the existence of more sophisticated health care chimes with the burgeoning recognition of Neanderthal intelligence. “It is totally in line with Neanderthal cognitive abilities, which there is no reason to suspect were very different from our own, and which would have allowed them to survive in their challenging environment,” says Francis Wenban-Smith of the University of Southampton. It is one more reason, he says, to recognize our cousins’ “capabilities as members of the human family, rather than presuming them to be the simple-minded brutes of popular folklore.”
The Neanderthals were helped by the feeling of compassion
Neanderthals continue to break stereotypes. For a long time they were considered to be rude and stupid relatives of reasonable people, but a number of recent studies completely refute this opinion.
In fact, the Neanderthals were quite aesthetics: they created primitive decorations and tried to make their homes more comfortable.
In addition, they were well versed in medicine: they used prehistoric painkillers and antibiotics, they knew about the medicinal properties of plants and even used toothpicks.
Relatively advanced medical knowledge and helped to survive this species, although researchers from New York University (USA) emphasize another important point: Neanderthals were not alien compassion.
In their recent work, the team showed that the concept of “Throw me, the commander” was unfamiliar to ancient people: they cared for the wounded, regardless of the severity of the injury or illness. And, according to scientists, they did this not for selfish reasons and personal interests.
Lead author of the study archaeologist Penny Spikins (Penny Spikins) notes: judging by the remains found by different teams, many Neanderthals during their lifetime had pathologies, injuries and health problems.
And in some cases, experts concluded that illness or injury was carried forward long before death. And, to get back on their feet, prehistoric patients needed not just treatment, but also special care – hygiene compliance, fever reduction, health monitoring, and sometimes even massage.
Scientists give a vivid example: they worked with the remains of a man who at the time of death was between 25 and 40 years old. The experts found out that during his lifetime he suffered from a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulder girdle. At least during the last year of life, the disease has clearly progressed, that is, this Neanderthal man was not able to work (hunt or create tools) on a par with other relatives.
Nevertheless, he was not expelled from the tribe and not “finished off”: judging by the burial of the remains, he remained a full member of his community for the rest of his life and died his death.
According to Spaykins, for many years anthropologists have focused on the medical knowledge of the Neanderthals, but have overlooked their social significance. Evidence that these “cousins” of people knew about medicines and knew how to use them should be interpreted not only in terms of abilities, but also in social and cultural contexts.
“The similarity of Neanderthal medicine with the later is of great importance.We argue that organized, advanced and caring health care is not unique to our species, but has a long evolutionary history,” concludes the researcher.
More details about their work the team described in an article published in the publication World Archaeology.
The upper date for the Bacho Kiro remains is older than previous evidence of early Homo sapiens settlement from Kents Cavern in Britain (a jawbone dating to between 44,200 and 41,500 years ago) and from the Italian site of Grotta del Cavallo (two teeth dating to 43,000-45,000 years ago and associated with artefacts belonging to the Uluzzian culture).
However, both the British and Italian evidence has been dated using material from the soil layers they were found in. The new paper relied on dating the bones and teeth themselves.
Prof Stringer said the Kents Cavern and Cavallo evidence was "not generally accepted because of uncertainties about their dating or morphology".
A scientific paper published in 2014 proposed that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago with a 95% probability.
However, other scientists have found evidence that Neanderthals may have survived later in some areas.
At the least, the new finds suggest there was around 5,000 years of chronological overlap between Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe.
Dr Pope said there was "no sudden disappearance" of Neanderthals in Europe.
"The new dates, if they're correct, are pushing back the co-existence of Neanderthals and modern humans a couple of thousand years even further than the evidence from Kents Cavern and the Uluzzian dates," he explained.
"In some places, we're getting direct evidence for interbreeding events, which could be evidence of social networking and cohesion. but in other examples, we can still see evidence of clear Neanderthal morphologies, suggesting populations that aren't - to any degree - hybridising or being absorbed."
Prof Stringer said initial dispersals of modern humans into Europe may have been by small bands which could not sustain their presence in the face of a larger Neanderthal presence. Indeed, DNA evidence suggests some of these early settlers contributed minimally to the gene pools of later populations.
There is even earlier evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe. In 2019, researchers published evidence that a skull fragment from Apidima cave in Greece, dated to 210,000 years ago, belonged to Homo sapiens.
However, scientists say this very early foray into Europe was not permanent, and the Apidima Homo sapiens population was later replaced by Neanderthals.
Neanderthal extinction began around 40,000 years ago in Europe after anatomically modern humans had reached the continent. This date, which is based on research published in Nature in 2014, is much earlier than previous estimates, and it was established through &hellip Continue reading &rarr
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