Neanderthals Looked after the Sick and Elderly

Most people’s impression of the Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis) are that these members of the human family, were thuggish brutes more ape-like than human but this is not true.  The fossilised remains of more than 275 individual Neanderthals have been found in Europe and western Asia and there is evidence of compassion and empathy in the Neanderthal and early human fossil record.

A team of researchers from the University of York (England), have examined the fossilised remains of early species of humans in an attempt to trace the origins of those very human qualities of humanity, compassion and empathy, traits that we ascribe to our own species but find it difficult to accept as potentially present in our more “ape-like” ancestors.  The archaeological record reveals that Neanderthals were excellent and highly skilled tool makers and very proficient hunters.  As a species, the Neanderthals existed for more than 300,000 years and although evidence for more, so called “characteristic” human behaviours such as language, art and religion is less clear there is some data to suggest a sophisticated and complex Neanderthal culture.  Certainly, there have been graves found with grave goods, hinting at death ceremonies and ritual burials, perhaps even some thought concerning an afterlife.  However, we look at it, the Neanderthals were extremely successful and very well adapted to their environment.

Indeed, if a Neanderthal was dressed in modern clothes, given a shave and a modern haircut, they could travel on a London bus and nobody would be any the wiser that there was another species of human present.  Anatomically, there were differences, the long, low skull with the low and sloping forehead for example.  The prominent brow ridge and the large nose may have made a Neanderthal look slightly different from your average commuter but to most of us travelling on the bus, he or she would not have merited a second look.

In May of this year, we at Everything Dinosaur published an article on the ten year study into the ancestry of the human genome, research carried out by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany)  into the relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals.

To read more about this study: Shedding Light on our Closest Relatives – The Neanderthal in all of Us

You can have a go at creating your own Neanderthal with a forensic, clay peg sculpture kit.  This kit enables model makers to recreate the face of real Neanderthal man that lived 50,000 years ago.

Neanderthal peg sculpture kit and other dinosaur crafts: Dinosaur Crafts for Children

The study carried out by the University of York suggests that groups of early humans living between 500,000 and 40,000 years ago took care of their sick or wounded.  The scientists discovered that a child with a congenital brain abnormality lived until at least five years of age and a Neanderthal with a withered arm, deformed feet and who was blind in one eye was cared for by the tribe for at least twenty years.

A Sculpture of an Elderly Neanderthal Man

Picture Credit: Action Press/Rex Features

This life size model of an old Neanderthal man is on display in the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany.

Dr. Penny Spikins, of the University’s archaeological department and the lead author of the study stated:

“Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion. It binds us together and can inspire us, but it is also fragile and elusive.  This apparent fragility makes addressing the evidence for the development of compassion in our most ancient ancestors a unique challenge.  Yet the archaeological record has an important story to tell about the prehistory of compassion.”

A recent discovery of the fossilised, fragmentary remains of an elderly Homo heidelbergensis in Spain, also suggest that H. heidelbergensis cared for their sick and elderly.  Although this individual was elderly (at least 45 years of age) and had a spinal deformity that prevented him from hunting or carrying heavy loads he must have been given food by others in his group.  Perhaps, as a senior member of the clan he had a certain status and could provide valuable advice and hunting/gathering information to his group members.  A highly developed inner ear and a complex larynx suggests these early hominids may have had a language.

It seems the “human” qualities of compassion and caring for others may not be truly unique to our own species.  Contradicting natural selection in this manner (the survival of the fittest)  may have permitted early humans to gain an evolutionary advantage by developing strong ties and bonds to the group.

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