Neanderthals Took Care of Deaf and Disabled Buddy Until Old Age

A new analysis suggests that an older Neanderthal from nearly 50,000 years ago, ended up being deaf and most likely depended on his friends in order to survive, after he had suffered several injuries and other deterioration.

Neanderthal Depended on Others
Known as Shanidar 1, this Neanderthal’s remains were uncovered in 1957 during excavation works at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan by Ralph Solecki, an American archaeologist and professor emeritus at Columbia University. Several studies in the past showed that his skull, as well as other parts of his body had suffered numerous injuries. According to The Source, Shanidar 1 suffered a severe blow to the side of the face, a breakage and the eventual amputation of the right arm at the elbow, serious wounds to the right leg, as well as a progressive deterioration and loss of his hearing’s function.

A new analysis of the skeletal remains published October 20 in the online journal PLoS ONE, suggests that Shanidar 1 – other than being disabled – needed the help and protection of his friends in order to survive, “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,” Erik Trinkaus told The Source (the new study’s co-author and professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.)

Trinkaus and Sébastien Villotte of the French National Centre for Scientific Research verified that bony growths in Shanidar 1’s ear canals would have resulted in major hearing loss. Furthermore, the scientists suggest that his sensory deprivation would have made him easy “prey” in his Pleistocene context.

Two views of the ear canal of the Neanderthal fossil Shanidar 1 showing deformities likely to have caused profound deafness. (Image: Courtesy of Erik Trinkaus)

The Spirit of Cooperation Between Shanidar Neanderthals
The co-authors of the recent study highlighted the fact that surviving successfully as a hunter-gatherer in the Pleistocene wasn’t an easy task at all and good health was more than necessary. Like other Neanderthals who have been observed for surviving with several severe injuries and limited arm use, Shanidar 1 possibly needed valuable social support from his environment 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 Neanderthals,” Trinkaus, the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor, said as The Source reports.

The skull of the Neandertal known as Shanidar 1 show signs of a blow to the head received at an early age. (Image: Courtesy of Erik Trinkaus)

But should this human-like characteristic of the Shanidar Neanderthals surprise us? Not really. As previously reported at Ancient Origins, there has long been debate among scientists regarding how Homo sapiens and Neanderthals compared in terms of their cognition and intelligence. Some anthropologists believe Neanderthals were just as intelligent as modern humans, while others believe that Homo sapiens endured over Neanderthals because they were superior in intelligence. Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq has been a subject of contention in this debate because it appears to contain evidence of a burial with funerary offerings made by Neanderthals in the form of flowers.

Neanderthal Burials
Initial excavation was done in Shanidar Cave, located in the Zagros Mountains, in the late 1920s. One of the first people to attempt excavation at the site was Dorothy Garrod, a British archaeologist. She found animal bones and a few stone tools such as handaxes, but no human remains. Work began in earnest in 1950, when an archaeology graduate student from Columbia University named Ralph Solecki began excavating the caves. Over the years, excavators uncovered several other skeletons of varying ages. The most interesting find was a specimen which they called Shanidar 4, since it was the fourth skeleton discovered at the cave. This skeleton was in the fetal position. They also discovered a large amount of pollen in the vicinity of Shanidar 4, which suggested that flowers had been deposited there. The position of the skeleton and the pollen implied that the Neanderthal had been purposefully buried. This is not the only finding of a Neanderthal burial. There is also evidence that Neanderthals were deliberately buried in a grave in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. Burial of the dead is a practice that was long thought to have been exclusive to Homo sapiens. However, recent evidence of deliberate burial and funerary rites suggest that Neanderthals did indeed engage in this practice, and may have been equal to early humans in their cognitive abilities.

Detailed scientific analysis shows Neanderthals were not such brutes. Not only did they bury their dead, but food and flower remains in their graves indicate that, by 70,000 years ago, they possibly believed in an afterlife. (CC BY-NC SA 2.0)

This is a bit of a leap to shaky conclusions from this new evidence but it at least puts the idea on the table that Neanderthals were a little more ‘human’ than we believed. Indeed, the possibility could be entertained the that Neanderthals were more ‘human’ (read ‘compassionate’) than the Homo sapiens and this weakened their fight for survival. It’s just a thought.
Wild speculation aside, if we accept the fact that Shanidar Neanderthals buried their own – just like modern humans do – it would only be a reasonable assumption that they probably looked after their disabled members while still alive.