Neanderthals nursed their sick and injured back to health with ancient medicine

Researchers examined over 30 Neanderthals with visible injuries to determine the level of care they would have received
An exhibit shows the life of a neanderthal family in a cave in the new Neanderthal Museum in the northern town of Krapina, Croatia. Neanderthals played doctor, caring for their ill and injured. (REUTERS/Nikola Solic)
Listen7:19

We like to think of our healthcare system as being pretty sophisticated — something unique that we humans have developed. While that is true, it turns out we're not the only hominins to have practiced healthcare on our fellow citizens.

By digging into the archeological record, researchers have found that not only did Neanderthals widely practice healthcare, but they were effective at it too. 

Penny Spikins was the lead author on the study. She's a senior lecturer in Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of York in the UK. She and her colleagues examined the skeletal remains of more than 30 Neanderthals with visible injuries or maladies. 

"We've been trying to look at the whole pattern of evidence for care in terms of when we see recovery from very severe injuries and illnesses, which really point to it being a practice that went on throughout that range really and was really important to their survival."

Neanderthals had a lot of injuries to heal

Neanderthals would have led a tough life. They lived through an ice age in Europe, which is no picnic. But they also hunted big game, like giant deer, wild buffalo, even mammoth and rhino — often by getting up close and personal with spears to take down their prey.

Terrible injuries would have been common and potentially catastrophic.

We can't imagine [Shanidar I] being able to make much of a contribution to his group, but he was looked after for about 10 to 15 years.- Penny Spikins, University of York

The best example of an individual Neanderthal who was clearly tended to, according to Spikins, is the Shanidar I specimen. This individual lived between 35 and 50 years, but he'd suffered from a range of debilitating impairments:

  • Blindness in one eye due to a violent blow in the face 
  • A withered, fractured right arm 
  • Deformities in his leg and foot, which likely gave him a painful limp
  • Hearing impairment
  • Suffered advanced degenerative joint disease
The skeleton of a Neanderthal found at Shanidar cave in Iraq who lived about 45000 years ago. He survived until he was about 35-50 years, but lived the last decade or so of his life with a range of debilitating impairments. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Shanidar I would not have survived without daily care and help with food. Spikins said, "And really, we can't imagine him being able to make much of a contribution to his group, but he was looked after for about 10 to 15 years."

Neanderthals lived in smaller communities

There's a plenty of evidence for broken bones that looked after and healed, but there's also evidence for the use of natural substances that clean infections and reduce pain.

One of the things that's probably important is they lived in these very small groups that are very sort of intimate and closely related to each other and closely connected. And if you lose just one member of that group, it has a much greater impact than if you're living in a much larger community.- Penny Spikins, University of York

"There's poplar, which is found in dental calculus in Neanderthals. Poplar can be used as a painkiller. It's got salicylic acid," said Spikins. "So it suggests they were using painkillers and the low rates of infection on the bones and it also suggests that they're doing something, you know wound cleaning or maybe using wound dressings, to keep the rates of infection down."

Neanderthals might have gone extinct, but they survived for hundreds of thousands of years. And they lived in small groups, which likely made a difference.

"One of the things that's probably important is they lived in these very small groups that are very sort of intimate and closely related to each other and closely connected. And if you lose just one member of that group, it has a much greater impact than if you're living in a much larger community."

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