He has often been described as a brute compared to the modern human, but the reality would be much more nuanced: the Neanderthal cared for his sick fellow Neanderthals by providing them with effective care he gave without counting on anything in return.
The work of the British anthropologist Penny Spikins and his colleagues at York University reveals that the care the Neanderthals gave to the sick and the wounded was widespread and effective and that they provided a “compassionate response” to pain.
It was known that Neanderthals sometimes cared for the wounded, but this study shows that they really cared for their peers, regardless of illness or injury, and did so beyond their personal interests. “Our results suggest that Neanderthals cared for others without expecting anything in return and reacted to the suffering of their loved ones,” says Penny Spikins.
You should also read: The Neanderthals’ Contributions to Human DNA.
Many remains of Homo neanderthalensi, who went extinct 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, show signs of serious injury or disease that highlight debilitating conditions. In some cases, this study shows, injuries occurred well before death and required monitoring and management of fever and hygiene care.
For example, the analysis of the remains of a man who died between 25 and 40 years shows a declining health, as well as the presence of a degenerative disease of the spine. His health would have greatly diminished his strength and limited his contribution to group life in the last 12 months of his life. He would have remained in his group until his death, and was buried with respect.”
We believe that the social importance of health care has been neglected in the past and that our interpretations have been influenced by the prejudices that Neanderthals were different from us. Our detailed study of the social and cultural context reveals a different picture,” says Dr. Spikins.
“We argue that organized, well-informed and caring health care is not unique to our species, but rather has a long history of evolution,” he added.
Previous work had shown that Neanderthals were treated with painkillers 48,000 years ago by eating poplar, which releases a substance with anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, and mold naturally producing penicillin, an antibiotic.
The details of these works are published in the journal World Archeology.