Neanderthals got by with help from friends

No one knows by what name the Neanderthal man now dubbed Shanidar 1 was known to his peers, but the chances are – unless a pronounced sense of irony was a distinguishing mark of the culture – it wasn’t “Lucky”.

The list of Shanidar 1’s disabilities – laid out in a paper published in the journal PLOS One – makes for disturbing reading. By the time he died, he was missing a forearm, had a badly fractured face, severe injuries to his right leg, a crippling degenerative disease, and growths in his skull that almost certainly rendered him deaf.

But here’s the thing: analysis by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in the US and Sébastien Villotte of Bordeaux University in France indicates that Shanidar 1 was in his 40s by the time he died.

In Late Pleistocene terms, that makes him an old man – an achievement for any Neanderthal, but a remarkable one for someone so profoundly damaged.

Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers, and lived in an environment in which they must have often fallen prey to large carnivores, quite possibly including fearsome sabre-toothed cats.

Physical handicaps, such a missing limb, would have placed anyone at a severe disadvantage. Sensory deprivations like deafness should have made it impossible to survive for long in a kill-or-be-killed world.

Yet Shanidar 1 did survive. According to Trinkaus and Vilotte, his comparative old age is strong evidence that Neanderthals had strongly developed social behaviours that included supporting and protecting the disabled.

“The debilities of Shanidar 1, and especially his hearing loss, thereby reinforce the basic humanity of these much maligned archaic humans, the Neanderthals,” says Trinkaus.  

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