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News > Science and Tech

New Study Claims Neanderthals Honored Social System

  • Approximate reconstruction of a Neanderthal skeleton and artistic interpretation of the La Ferrassie 1 Neanderthal man from the National Museum of Nature and Science.

    Approximate reconstruction of a Neanderthal skeleton and artistic interpretation of the La Ferrassie 1 Neanderthal man from the National Museum of Nature and Science. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published 26 October 2017

A study conducted by two anthropologists of a handicapped 50,000 year-old skeleton revealed that he received community support.

Researchers re-analyzing the remains of a Neanderthal man say their findings prove that tribal members would care for others with disabilities.

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A study conducted by two anthropologists of the 50,000 year-old skeleton, Shanidar 1, revealed the man had lived a long life for a Paleolithic-era hunter, dying between the ages of 40 to 50, despite a number of severe handicaps.

Now, fifty years after the discovery and the first analysis of the remains of the Neanderthal man, Erik Trinkaus from Washington University and Sebastien Villote of the French National Center for Scientific Research documented a second, more thorough examination of the ancient remains.

After studying the man’s skull, researchers found evidence of a serious head injury suffered most likely during childhood. Traces of the injury appeared around the eye socket, which is believed to have caused some visual impairment. Recent examinations of his remains show Shanidar 1 would have struggled with serious hearing loss, due to large bony growths in his right ear canal.

“It would have been essentially impossible for Shanidar 1 to maintain a sufficiently clear canal for adequate sound transmission,” the two anthropologists reported.

“He would therefore have been effectively deaf in his right ear, and he likely had at least partial CHL (conductive hearing loss) in the left ear.” Trinkaus and Villotte said it was “a serious sensory deprivation for a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer.”

Other parts of the body showed that during his life, the man lost his right hand and forearm through amputation. Trinkaus and Villote report the man moved about with a serious gait as a result of hyperostotic disease, a muscular pain which limits mobility of the spine.

The existence of these handicaps would make life as a hunter during this era extremely difficult, if not almost impossible. His limited mobility, hearing and visual abilities would have posed difficulties in crafting weapons and tools while making him more vulnerable to large carnivores.

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“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,” Trinkaus said in a statement.

The anthropologists claim he must have received support from his community, which wouldn’t be surprising considering the groups’ respect for human life. Experts say evidence shows that prehistoric humans buried their dead, a tradition which indicates social cohesion, social roles and mutual support.

Additional proof supporting the idea of a social class can be seen by the use of feathers and pigments, a sign of “social identity manipulation and social cohesion.”

This is not the first time consideration for handicapped community members has been seen. A 2014 study in Spain showed a Neanderthal with similar hearing difficulties, while another revealed the existence of a severe brain deformity in a young five-year-old Neanderthal child that didn't lead to her rejection from the tribe.

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