Neanderthals had a ‘well developed system of care’ to look after their sick and ‘midwives’

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Neanderthals survived for almost 300,000 years because they were compassionate, and had a ‘well developed system of care’ according to new research.

The study suggests they provided widespread healthcare to members of their group, even offering assisted childbirth.

Researchers say the compassion and caring for the injured and dying could have given the Neanderthals an ‘evolutionary advantage’ and kept them alive for far longer.

  

Previous research at the University of York had already suggested that compassion and caring for the injured and dying could have been a factor in the development of healthcare practices, but further investigation has now shown that there was evolutionary drivers behind it too.  

Researchers investigated the skeletal remains of more than 30 individuals where minor and serious injuries were evident, but did not lead to loss of life. 

The samples displayed several episodes of injury and recovery, suggesting that Neanderthals must have had a well-developed system of care in order to survive. 

‘Neanderthals faced multiple threats to their lives, particularly from large and dangerous animals, 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,’ said Dr. Penny Spikins, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology.

‘We have evidence of healthcare dating back 1.6 million years ago, but we think it probably goes further back than this.  

‘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.’ 

More than 80% of the skeletal remains of Neanderthals known to archaeologists have several injuries, some of which may have required simple remedies, such as food and rest, while others would have required serious levels of care due to a high risk to life. 

In some cases the injuries occurred long before death and would have required monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care, previous studies have found. 

One analysis of a male aged around 25-40 at time of death revealed a catalogue of poor heath, including a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders.

Dr Spikins found he remained part of the group – as his articulated remains were subsequently carefully buried. 

His condition would have sapped his strength over the final 12 months of life and severely restricted his ability to contribute to the group. 

Researchers say that because Neanderthals lived in small groups, even a single death could have a large effect on the group. 

They also say that childbirth was a particular target for Neanderthal healthcare. 

‘It is likely that they would have had assisted childbirth; the role that we now attribute to midwives,’ Dr. Spikins said:

‘Without support, they probably could not have survived the toll that the death rate of mothers and babies could have taken on their communities.

‘When we look at the daily risks and dangers involved in hunting and finding food, as well as in childbirth in respect to their small hunting communities, it is not surprising that they would develop practices to improve health and reduce mortality risk.

‘We can start to see healthcare as a pattern of evolutionary significant collaborative behaviour, alongside hunting together, food sharing and parenting. In this we can see why providing healthcare to those in need today is such an important part of human life.’ 

Neanderthals occupied Europe and Asia from around 300,000 to 30,000 ago. They were traditionally viewed as unintelligent.

But evidence has been mounting in recent years supporting the claim that they were intelligent with a sophisticated culture.

It is believed they created and wore the world’s first jewellery 130,000 years ago, making necklaces or bracelets from eagle talons. They also buried their dead, and may even have had rudimentary religion.

Stone tools discovered at sites they inhabited suggest they were skilled tool makers with adept hand eye coordination. They may also have built homes using the materials they found around them.

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