In The Descent of Man Charles Darwin laid out his thoughts regarding humans. At length he discussed our nature, behaviour and evolution. But of all he had observed around the world one aspect of humanity stood out to him as the “noblest.”
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered…more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man; p168
Our empathy for others, the drive we feel to heal the sick, care for the elderly and help the less fortunate is truly one of Homo sapiens best attributes.
But how human is this “noblest” part of humanity?
Homo neanderthalensis was our closest relative, only splitting off from our lineage ~600,000 years ago. Evolutionary speaking that is a mere blink of an eye. Yet despite being so closely related there are continuing debates over how “human” they were.
Although their technology was en-route to becoming as complex as their human contemporaries, they were still lagging behind a bit. Combine that with the array of differences in brain structure between humans and neanderthals and you’re left with an inability to identify how similar our thought processes were.
And if you can’t figure out how they thought, it becomes difficult to determine if they were sympathetic and caring like us “noble” humans. Without such information many have suggested they weren’t as…virtuous as humans.
However, finds from an Iraqi cave have challenged the traditional view of neanderthals as uncaring individuals. In particular the skeletons of elderly neanderthals suggests there was more to our closest cousins than old movie posters would have you believe.
The skeletons, known simply as Shanidar 1 and 3 (being the first and third individual recovered from Shanidar cave) were first excavated in the 1950s and have been researched almost constantly since then. This work revealed they were in bad shape.
Shanidar 1 was an unlucky neanderthal fellow, suffering from a range of ailments. He was buried in the cave ~36,000 years ago (yes, neanderthals buried their dead) and was around 40 years old when he died.
His list of ailments is long and rather disturbing. His right arm, for example, was relatively thin, had been broken multiple times and was also missing everything below the elbow. This could’ve happened after death, but might it have occurred during his life? This would explain why the arm was atrophied – it wasn’t used because a good chunk of it was missing.
He’d also suffered a severe injury in his face that would’ve crushed his left eye socket rendering that eye either partially or totally blind. However, this seems to have happened in his youth and he survived despite this injury.
Similarly the many wounds to his right arm seem to have occurred earlier in his life, with all of his fractures having healed. Clearly his ability to fend for himself would be greatly reduced by the loss of an arm and an eye, yet he managed to survive.
The only way this could’ve happened is with outside assistance. In the harsh world of the Palaeolithic he would have perished long before the age of 40 unless his group was helping him.
He was a sick man being cared for by other neanderthals.
Shanidar 3 was a neanderthal man buried in the same grave as Shanidar 1. He was around 40-50 when he died making him one of the oldest known neanderthals.
S3 suffered from a severe degenerative disorder in his right foot that would’ve rendered it very difficult for him to walk around. He also appears to have had a mutant 13th pair of ribs, unlucky guy. The net result of all of this would be that his ability to find his own food would’ve been severely compromised, most likely resulting in death.
Yet his condition appears to have developed because he suffered a traumatic injury (is there any other kind?) to the foot. His left food is devoid of the condition, indicating that it is not the result of natural ageing but of something special that happened to the right leg.
The fact his condition developed indicates he had been living with significant injury for some time, sufficient for the degenerative disease to emerge. Yet the fact he was crippled would’ve hampered his ability to survive for this long unless he was being cared for by his group.
All in all the finds from Shanidar seem to be pretty conclusive proof that neanderthals were sympathetic, caring beings who were every bit as noble as humanity. These individuals could not have survived for as long as they did without assistance.
There is no real way around it, neanderthals cared for their sick and elderly. Combine that with our increasing appreciation of their technological complexity and you’re looking at a hominin that is far from the brutish creatures we used to imagine them to be.
|Churchill SE, Franciscus RG, McKean-Peraza HA, Daniel JA, & Warren BR (2009). Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry. Journal of human evolution, 57 (2), 163-78 PMID: 19615713|
|Stewart (1977). The Neanderthal Skeletal Remains from Shanidar Cave, Iraq: A Summary of Findings to Date Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 121 (2), 121-165|