Oct 05 2018

Neanderthal Healthcare

Neanderthals were our close cousins. They are the closest species to modern humans that we know of. There is also the Denisovans, which are currently classified as a subspecies of Homo sapiens, but may eventually be classified as their own species.

Neanderthals lived from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. They spread out of Africa, and throughout Europe and Asia. When modern humans arrived later, there was some clear interbreeding going on – Europeans and Asians have about 2% Neanderthal DNA. In fact a recent study suggests that modern humans specifically retained Neanderthal genes that conveyed improved resistance to European viruses.

The first fossil specimen of Neanderthal was discovered in 1829, although this was not recognized until later. The first recognized specimen was collected in 1856 in the Neander valley in Germany. This was the first early hominid specimen found. Perhaps because of the time it was discovered, our image of Neanderthal is still colored by the notions of the day. “Primitive” was synonymous with brutish and animalistic.

Although scientists have long recognized this is not an accurate portrait of Neanderthals, and they have tried to rehabilitate their image, the public conception of our close cousins as primitive brutes persists. Neanderthals were practically modern humans, however. There is also evidence for sophisticated tool use, use of shelters, clothing, and fire. They cooperated for hunting, and also consumed a variety of plants. There is evidence of symbolic artifacts, burying the dead, and even placing tokens like flowers in the grave. They were probably not significantly different than modern hunter gatherers.

A new study now also suggests that they took care of their sick and injured. Researchers looked at 30 Neanderthal specimens and found that 80% of them had evidence of minor and even serious injuries. Many of the injuries were severe enough, like a broken leg, that the individual would not have been able to survive on their own. This means that their people took care of them and nursed them back to health. Subsequent injuries suggest they continued to participate in activities of their tribe.

In fact, there is evidence of such healthcare in hominids going back 1.6 million years. We likely have not found the earliest example, so this date is likely to be pushed back further.

The authors speculate that healthcare for serious injuries was probably necessary for survival in a small group. Any losses would have had a significant impact on the survival of the entire group.

This and other evidence suggests that we do need to keep in mind that our close ancestors were practically human, and they were likely much closer in temperament and behavior to modern humans than to chimps and our closest non-human primate relatives. They were also very close to us in intelligence. It is possible that modern humans did have an advantage there, and that is why we ultimately prevailed, but that is not currently clear.

In any case – the image of a brutish primitive needs to be wiped away. Neanderthals were people.


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