By now there is enough evidence to show that – far from the brutish and uncouth stereotype that emerged during the 20th century – Neanderthals were intelligent, cultured, and not so different from our own ancestors.
Now a new study is arguing that our northern cousins were also compassionate and caring, which would have helped them survive the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe. Publishing their findings in the journal World Archaeology, the researchers suggest that the extensive use of healthcare within Neanderthal society shows that the hominins were genuinely caring for their peers, rather than simply satisfying their own selfish interests.
They have arrived at this conclusion based on the remains of Neanderthals showing evidence of healed trauma. This suggests that rather than taking the emotionless view that these members of the group were not contributing and therefore a burden, the other members instead used their time and energy to care for them.
One example comes from a Neanderthal man aged between 25 and 40 years old. His skeleton shows that he suffered from some form of degenerative disease in his spine and shoulders at the time of his death. The extent of the disease means that, during the last year of his life at least, he wouldn't have been able to contribute much to his group, and yet he survived. When this man eventually did die, his remains were carefully buried by his community.
“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,” said the University of York’s Dr Penny Spikins, lead author of the study. “However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture.”
We know that Neanderthals didn't just provide each other with bedside care, but also medicine. DNA analysis of the hardened plaques found on Neanderthal teeth shows that they were using aspirin for pain relief, and possibly even penicillin.
This feeds into a wider picture of how we tend to view not only Neanderthals, but also our own ancestors, and how we generally think of them as separate from us. Despite the hand-to-mouth existence of hunter-gathers some 34,000 years ago, one group still managed to care for disabled children within their community, one of whom likely couldn’t walk.
The compassion that Neanderthals showed towards one another, the authors argue, would have helped them survive in the harsh conditions of Europe at the time they were stalking the plains. Looking after members of their group even when there was no immediate benefit – doing so simply out of pure empathy – would have been a significant advantage in the long run.