Homo neanderthalensis, adult male. Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1 by John Gurche

Neanderthals are seen as brutish and uncaring, but a new archeological study has shown that Neanderthals benefited from an effective and knowledgeable healthcare system.

Researchers from the University of York revealed that Neanderthal healthcare was uncalculated and highly effective, even though we tend to think of about them as crueler than modern-day humans. The study suggests that Neanderthals were very compassionate caregivers.

The scientific community knows very well that Neanderthals sometimes provided care for the injured, but the team at York re-analyzed Neanderthal behavior and they suggest ‘our cousins’ were genuinely caring of their peers regardless of the level of illness or injury, rather than helping others out of self-interest.

Lead author, Dr. Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the Archaeology of Human Origin at the University of York, said, “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.”

The individuals researchers know about had a severe injury or disease, with detailed pathologies highlighting a range of debilitating conditions and injuries. Sometimes, the injuries occurred long before the time of death and would have required monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care, researchers suggest.

Researchers analyzed a male around 25-40 years old at time of death that showed a catalog of poor health, including a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders. His degrading physical state would have sapped his strength over the final 12 months of life and severely restricted his ability to contribute to the community. The authors of the study believe he remained part of the group since his articulated remains were subsequently carefully buried.

Dr Spikins added, “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. However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture.

“The very similarity of Neanderthal healthcare to that of later periods has important implications. We argue that organised, knowledgeable and caring healthcare is not unique to our species but rather has a long evolutionary history.”

The paper was published in the journal World Archaeology.

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