As soon as the first Neanderthal fossils were discovered in 1856, the ancient hominins gained a reputation as dumb, hairy brutes. Famed biologist Thomas Henry Huxley described the Neanderthal as a “man of low degree of civilization,” while futurist H.G. Wells argued they were savage creatures that deserved extinction in his 1921 short story “The Grisly Folk.” On Tuesday, scientists argued in World Archaeology that these stereotypes are wrong: Neanderthals, they write, were actually really good to one another.

Over the past two decades, many scientists have contested the claim that neanderthals cared for each others’ well-being. Just because some Neanderthal fossils show a recovery from injury, they argued, doesn’t mean someone else nursed it back to health. However, in the new paper, a team of University of York archeologists argue that the injuries the appear in many Neanderthal fossils are signs that these individuals had to be taken care of in the months, or years, leading up to their deaths.

“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,” explained lead author, Penny Spikins, Ph.D., in a statement released Tuesday. That these Neanderthals provided knowledgeable and caring healthcare for their kin similar to what might be provided today, argues Spikins, is indicative that healthcare has a “long evolutionary history.”

Neanderthal skull
The crania of the La Chapelle aux Saints Neanderthal. 

Reviewing previous analyses of Neanderthal injuries, Spikins and her team concluded that Neanderthal healthcare, they write, was characterized by a “compassionate and knowledgeable response to injury and illness.” Take, for example, a specimen known as LCS1, a male who died sometime between the ages of 25 and 45: He had a spectrum of maladies, including a diseased left hip, extensive tooth loss, and severe osteoarthritis. But he survived for a pretty long time with his injuries, indicating that he received direct support from other Neanderthals, including fever management, repositioning, and help moving from camp to camp.

Shandiar 1, another Neanderthal specimen, was similarly cared for. His bones, which date between 45,000 to 70,000 B.C., were found in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq and reveal a life of debilitating impairments:

“This included a violent blow to the face, possibly as a young adult, leaving him with blindness or only partial sight in the left eye, a withered right arm which had been fractured and healed, resulting in the loss of his lower arm and hand, and possible paralysis, deformities in his left leg and foot leading to a painful limp and a hearing impairment.”

Yet, analysis of the bones shows that these injuries occurred long before his death and showed signs of healing. Shandiar 1 was cared for by his peers; he wasn’t alone in surviving his trauma.

Neanderthal, cave
The Shanidar Cave, where the Neanderthal's skeleton was recovered. 

Neanderthals’ impressive healthcare system has likely been overlooked because of the influence of “preconceptions of Neanderthals as ‘different’ or even brutish.” But the authors note that investments into the health of individuals shouldn’t come as a surprise: From a large-scale evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that beings of any species would care for each other. Strong pro-social bonds, they write, provide a buffer against individual pain and, much like humans, Neanderthals likely learned that taking risks for the survival of individuals stood to benefit society as a whole.

“Investments in others’ well being and motivations to help those we care about may not ‘pay off’ in an instance, but do so over evolutionary timescales,” explain the researchers. “By demonstrating a willingness to take costs on others’ behalves, individuals become more trusted themselves, ensuring willing help when they need it.”

Neanderthals, as we’re discovering, weren’t just genetically similar to us but, in many ways, resembled us behaviorally. Scientists have recently discovered that they too created art and honored the dead, and now we know they provided effective and compassionate healthcare for their loved ones. Taken together, these observations make it a little easier to swallow that our human ancestors liked hooking up with them.


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