Don’t call them brutes: Neanderthals had a great bedside manner
New evidence points to fairly sophisticated healthcare practices, including helping during childbirth
We have always imagined them communicating with monosyllabic grunts, scraping their knuckles on the floor and using the brute force of their thick-set bodies to procure power, food and sex.
In short: bulls in the china shop of evolution.
But now, new research has suggested that our Neanderthal forebears were not as insensitive as popular culture would have us believe and that they did, in fact, exhibit fairly sophisticated healthcare practices.
There is now evidence that suggests they assisted in cases of serious injury, and also offered help during the challenges of childbirth.
The research, which comes out of the University of York, has also broken the mould in terms of what is actually studied and the light it sheds on the species’ (some scientists argue it is a subspecies) survival over a long period.
Before, most investigative work into the lives of Neanderthals focused on rituals and symbols associated with death, but the new study suggests that these relatively sophisticated healthcare practices were a cornerstone of survival and emerged from Neanderthals having a much greater capacity for care and compassion than previously believed.
The researchers focused on the remains of about 30 individuals who had clearly sustained either minor or serious injuries at some point. What was clear was that each had experienced several such episodes of “injury and recovery” and had thus been cared for back to health and healing.
“Neanderthals faced multiple threats to their lives, particularly from large and dangerous animals,” says Dr Penny Sipkins from the university’s department of archaeology, “but in popular culture Neanderthals have such a brutish and strong image that we haven't really thought too deeply about their vulnerabilities before now.
“The high level of injury and recovery from serious conditions, such as a broken leg, suggests that others must have collaborated in their care and helped not only to ease pain, but to fight for their survival in such a way that they could regain health and actively participate in the group again.”
While some of the injuries would have required basic remedies like food and rest, others would have required more intensive care for a life to be saved. Living in such small groups meant that each life was precious in terms of the survival of the group.
As for childbirth, Neanderthal women faced the same problem that our own species faces today compared with other species – the shape of the pelvis and the shape of the newborn’s head did not make for easy birth.
According to Spikins: “It is likely that they would have had assisted childbirth – the role that we now attribute to midwives. Without support, they probably could not have survived the toll that the death rate of mothers and babies could have taken on their communities.”
The bigger picture that emerges from the research is the fact that healthcare was of evolutionary significance just like hunting together, sharing food, and parenting.
Researchers now aim to “expand this work to look at potential methods of healthcare” while also exploring how far back these practices can be traced.