New Study Rewrites History of Neanderthals—Were They Actually Selfless Caregivers?
Neanderthals are usually portrayed as one step above big apes in terms of intelligence and human-like qualities, but a new study from the University of York argues that they were far from the "brutish" figures we may imagine them as. According to research published in World Archaeology, they actually cared for injured and deformed comrades, helping them overcome life-threatening diseases and disabilities. All of this, the research argues, was done out of a sense of empathy rather than self-interest.
The research draws upon evidence found from recovered Neanderthal specimens, especially those that appeared to be diseased or deformed. One of these specimens, who died between the ages of 25 and 40 appeared to have a degenerative spine and shoulder disease that would have needed attention and care from other Neanderthals. Based on the way he was buried, the researchers concluded that he was not cast off from the group on account of his ailments.
Other specimens have been discovered with injuries or medical issues that emerged long before their deaths, which would require "monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care" for them to survive. The fact that these specimens did survive to older ages suggests that they received the care they needed.
Caring for an ailing family member makes sense to us modern humans, but the fact that Neanderthals did the same thing suggests that they were willing to accept the drain on time and resources that comes from constant care, rather than shun sick members as soon as they became a burden. According to Dr. Penny Spikins, the lead author of the new paper, "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."
If this research is accurate, then it may change the way we look at Neanderthals as a species and overcome their negative image as hairy, stupid, and uncaring. "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," says Spikins. "However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture."
Good for Neanderthals. Too bad they couldn't draw animals.