December 7, 2022

ShanidarCare: Neanderthals cared for their own

50,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers cared lovingly for their disabled

Kurdistan is a dangerous place today, but 50,000 years ago, Neanderthal hunter-gatherers had to keep a weather eye open, too. There were bears, cheetahs, lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals, not to mention snakes and scorpions. An unwary step and you were literally dead meat.

Which makes it all the more surprising that a man named (by scientists) Shanidar 1 survived into his 40s or 50s – perhaps the equivalent of about 80 nowadays. He must have had the late Pleistocene equivalent of top-drawer Obamacare from his tribe.

A technical, but very significant, article in PLOS One, examines the skeleton of a Neanderthal found in Shanidar Cave, near Erbil, in Iraq. The site, which contains the remains of 10 Neanderthals, has been known since the late 1950s. But a more thorough examination of Shanidar 1 shows that he was suffering from serious handicaps.

Previous studies of his skull and other skeletal remains had noted his multiple injuries. He had sustained a serious blow to the side of the face which probably blinded him in one eye, fractures, the amputation of the right arm at the elbow, and injuries to the right leg, as well as a systematic degenerative condition.

What the most recent examination discovered was that he may also have been profoundly deaf.

“More than his loss of a forearm, bad limp and other injuries, his deafness would have made him easy prey for the ubiquitous carnivores in his environment and dependent on other members of his social group for survival,” said co-author Erik Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis.

Bony growths in Shanidar 1's ear canals would have produced profound hearing loss. In addition to his other debilitations, this sensory deprivation would have made him highly vulnerable in his Pleistocene context.

As the co-authors note, survival as a hunter-gatherer in the Pleistocene presented numerous challenges, and all of those difficulties would have been markedly pronounced with sensory impairment. Like other Neandertals who have been noted for surviving with various injuries and limited arm use, Shanidar 1 most likely required significant social support to reach old age.

“The debilities of Shanidar 1, and especially his hearing loss, thereby reinforce the basic humanity of these much maligned archaic humans, the Neandertals,” says Trinkaus. 

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