Did Neanderthals Love? Evidence and Implications of Compassion in Neanderthal Healthcare Practices

By: Alaina Perdon, an Environmental Studies major, and Anthropology & Chesapeake Regional Studies minor.

The following was created for ANT 107: Introduction to Environmental Archaeology.

Brief Description: As modern humans, we view ourselves as completely removed from earlier iterations of people, failing to dignify them with deeper anthropogenic traits like emotions. This essay examines the medicinal practices of Neanderthals, finding evidence of compassion that suggests they may have felt love towards one another.

Harvard scientists separate “love” into three categories based on the neurochemicals responsible for each sensation. Lust is but a product of heightened estrogen and testosterone, while dopamine and serotonin are responsible for attraction. Feelings of attachment are catalyzed by hyperproduction of oxytocin, referred to as the “cuddle chemical” (Wu n.d.). Oxytocin is released during prolonged time in close physical proximity or in high-energy situations like intercourse and childbirth. The purpose of oxytocin is to foster bonding; the chemical mediates friendships, parent-infant relationships, and governs social cordialities (Carter 2014). Production of oxytocin occurs in the hypothalamus region of every mammalian brain, “love” is merely the anthropogenic label given to this biological response. Thus, our prehistoric ancestors possessed the neurochemical foundation to love one another. Archaeological evidence including art, body adornments, and careful burial practices imply Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought and assigned value to entities beyond practical purpose (Wong 2015). This suggests the species experienced love as a deeper emotional sensation than chemical reactions. The best evidence of love exists in displays of compassion, the practice of caring for one another out of pure altruism, which shows emotional bonds and an ability to recognize the intrinsic value of another’s life. This can be seen in Neanderthal’s healthcare practices, as they administered care to ill, injured, and elderly members of their groups indiscriminately, regardless of the cost to the greater society. The widespread practice of compassion helped sustain the Neanderthal population, allowing them to evolve more efficient provisioning methods, develop richer culture, and ultimately advance as a species. In an era of human history that oftentimes seems devoid of compassion, we may benefit from seeking inspiration from our predecessors as we shape our society in the future.

The Pleistocene Epoch, the time of the Neanderthals, was characterized ecologically by a rapidly changing climate. The cyclical freezing and thawing of groundwater created a unique soil consisting of ice and river silt in which little more than tubers and lichens could grow (Zimov 2005). Reindeer, mammoths, and other large lichen-grazers populated the plains, followed by predators such as cave lions and wolves. Survival comes not without struggle in such a harsh environment, particularly for early hominids who established themselves in unprotected, predator-rich areas in search of food (Zimov 2005; Spikins et. al. 2018 b). Neanderthals developed dangerous hunting practices to dominate the landscape. Stone-tipped spears and puncture wounds on animal bones found during an excavation in Neumark-Nord, Germany indicate they were practicing sophisticated toolmaking and close-range hunting tactics (Boissoneault 2018). These techniques usually ensured a successful hunt, but at a high risk of injury to the Neanderthals. Considering the risk of bodily harm faced by hunters, as well as the increased susceptibility to disease and famine in the age of an ever-changing climate, one can extrapolate that Neanderthals could not have survived to evolve without specializations to overcome these environmental obstacles (Spikins 2018 b).

Among these specializations was the modern concept of compassion and a means of caring for one another. Rudimentary forms of modern healthcare practices emerged to reduce fatalities caused by the aforementioned threats, allowing the species to grow both in numbers and strength. As a social, communicative species, Neanderthal medicine evolved over time from basic provisioning and toolmaking to include use of medicinal plants and symptomatic treatment (Spikins 2018 a). It is hypothesized by archaeologists that Neanderthals would not have attained their niche among the top predators of their environment without the motivation and ability to recover themselves from illness and injury (Spikins 2018 b). Oftentimes, administering care was costly in terms of resources and time to the larger group. Additionally, archaeological evidence shows any individual afflicted with an illness or injury was cared for to some capacity, regardless of their significance within the society, raising questions as to the motives behind “Neanderthal healthcare” (Spikins, 2018 a). While Neanderthal healthcare practices may have been borne of evolutionary necessity, their tactics evolved out of recognition of the intrinsic value of life more so than a need to preserve their species. By providing care to an ill or injured individual at the expense of the group and administering care without expectation of compensation, Neanderthals exhibit compassion. This emotional motivation drove the species to develop more complex methodologies, and certainly saved the species from early extinction by allowing them to surpass the limitations of their ecosystem.

No better example of Neanderthals’ compassion exists than Shanidar 1, the remains of a Neanderthal man dated to 45,000 – 70,000 BP found in the Shanidar Cave system in Iraq. Pathologies of Shanidar 1 reveal a slew of ailments, the most notable of which being his lack of a right forearm. Because the arm ends in a clean break just proximal to the elbow joint, archaeologists hypothesize this is evidence of amputation following a severe fracture (Trinkaus and Villotte 2017). Analyzing the skull reveals a laterally crushing fracture to the left orbit region, which would greatly alter vision, if not cause complete blindness. Also present on the skull were external auditory exostoses, masses in the ear canal causing conductive hearing loss (Trinkaus and Villotte 2017). Bowing of certain leg bones suggests pedal trauma and osteoarthritis. Coupled with lesions on the bones indicative of a hyperostotic disease associated with muscular tendinosis, this leads archaeologists to theorize that Shanidar 1 would have been nearly entirely incapable of independent mobility (Trinkaus and Villotte 2017). Undoubtedly, he was a large burden on his cohort, as his physical handicaps would render him unable to provision for himself and thus leave him entirely reliant on others for food. Limited mobility in combination with decreased spatial awareness due to hearing and vision loss made Shanidar 1 more vulnerable to the predatory large mammals native to the Shanidar Cave region, jeopardizing the safety of the entire group. Hearing and vision loss would also hinder his ability to communicate with others, a significant detriment to success amongst a fully linguistic Paleolithic foraging community (Spikins et. al. 2018 a). Care was costly. It would have been of greater benefit to the group to allocate resources to those who could in turn provide more for the community than to funnel food, time, and energy toward a non- communicative safety hazard. Yet, dating his remains reveals Shanidar 1 lived to be approximately 50 years old, and the accelerated healing patterns of his injuries indicate constant tending to (Spikins et. al. 2018 a). Ensuring the survival of this individual was only onerous for the Neanderthals, but they exhibited care for the duration of his lengthy life. Said archaeologist Pat Shipman of Shanidar 1’s seemingly inexplicable longevity: “That he survived for years after his trauma was a testament to Neanderthal compassion and humanity” (Shipman 1993). This group desired to keep one of their fellow Neanderthals alive, not because of his contributions to the group in terms of hunting or foraging yield, but in recognition of his emotional value as a member of their community. They cared for him because they loved him.

While there were many cases in which care was shown out of altruism, as evidenced by Shanidar 1, adopting healthcare practices was beneficial to the evolutionary advancement of Neanderthals. Regardless of scale, investments in the wellbeing of another and an intrinsic motivation to help others may not have an immediate “payoff,” yet the benefit is seen over evolutionary timescales. The primordial purpose of every organism is to advance the growth of their species; thus, the goal of each member of a species is to reduce mortality within the population to allow the species to expand in numbers, furthering their evolution. The most effective means of reducing mortality is not simply to adapt to the conditions of one’s environment, but to evolve means of overcoming the constraints of the environment by manipulating its features. Developing healthcare practices allowed the Neanderthals to do so, increasing their ability to survive and evolve in their precarious environment. While severe cases like that of Shanidar 1 are more commonly discussed, smaller-scale healthcare practices such as disinfecting wounds were more common in actuality (Spikins et. al. 2018 a). These “everyday” actions stopped minor afflictions from worsening to a fatal extent. For example, chemical analysis of dental residues found on remains in the El Sidrón caves of northern Spain indicate frequent consumption of poplar leaves. Decidedly unpalatable, poplar leaves are a medicinal plant containing salicylic acid, a keratolytic that helps slough away infected skin cells and relieve pain (Weyrich et. al. 2017). One specimen, El Sidrón 1, was found to have had poplar leaves packed into a cavity in the teeth indicative of a dental abscess. If left untreated, such infections are now known to spread to the brain and cause serious, if not fatal, brain damage; thus, the proactive treatment may have saved the life of this individual (Weyrich et. al. 2017; Shweta and Prakash 2013). Smaller-scale healthcare practices also include reducing fever and otherwise staving off common illness. The fluctuating temperatures of the Pleistocene era contributed to easily compromised immune systems: extreme cold periods weakened the immune system while subsequent warming catalyzed the release of pathogens (Spikins et. al. 2018 a). Residue from herbs including purslane and relatives of garlic, associated with fever reduction and decongestion, have been found on dental remains in numerous burial sites (Weyrich et. al. 2017). Continued attempts at healing led Neanderthals to gain an aptitude for medical botany and further capitalize on the elements of their landscape.

The Pleistocene’s inconsistent climate also contributed to scarcity of vegetation to consume, leading the Neanderthals to become entirely reliant on animals as food during extreme periods. Hunting large predators necessitates a strong hunting party and dangerous hunting methods. Such a lifestyle inevitably led to injuries, requiring the adaption of healing measures. Because the Neanderthals had a means of setting broken bones and cleaning wounds, they were able to continually engage in risky practices. This is so not only because they were physically able to regain ability; but also, because the trust that they would be cared for in the event of injury motivated them to continue taking risks (Yravedra 2015). The planned hunting of dangerous game was reliant upon a huntsman’s willingness to jeopardize their own safety, and the promise of survival brought by a reliable healthcare system increased this drive. Demonstrated readiness to help builds trust, creating secure social bonds within the population (Yravedra 2015; Spikins et. al. 2018 b). Strong bonds provide a “buffer” against lapses in resources or health, providing a distinct evolutionary advantage over species in which each member is reliant upon only themselves (Spikins et. al. 2018 b). The evolution of healthcare practices amongst the Neanderthals was driven by emotion and compassion exhibited in each instance, yet there were distinct advantages provided by this system. Because of the decreased risk of mortality, Neanderthals were able to evolve in other aspects, developing culture and technology.

Healthcare is particularly understudied when searching for evidence of higher thinking in Neanderthals. Most attention is directed towards examination of burial practices, as they could indicate the practice of a religion. Evidence of an organized religion or an inkling in such a direction suggests an advanced culture and the capability of symbolic thought (Spikins et. al. 2018 a). Burial practices, regardless of religious element, bear significance as they show value placed on another’s life. However, examination beyond just the funeral process reveals this inherent value was apparent throughout one’s entire life. Studying the pelvic bones of female Neanderthals, archaeologists have concluded that the infrequency of stress injuries in females who had born children are indicative of assisted childbirth. It is hypothesized that individuals incapable of hunting or foraging but still able-bodied were positioned as “midwives” to ensure successful labor and reduce rates of maternal mortality (Spikins et. al. 2018 b). Neanderthals cared for one another from birth to death, developing tactics akin to those seen in modern medicine to ease suffering. When searching for more evidence regarding Neanderthals’ displays of compassion, archaeologists should look to their lifestyles and interactions with one another, which so closely mirror our own that we can attribute modern human feelings to their actions.

There have been numerous attempts to debunk the notion that Neanderthals altruistically cared for one another. Many are hesitant to accept that Neanderthals practiced care because it conflicts with the popular view of Neanderthals as brutish or dumb. It is difficult to conceptualize an less-evolved species exhibiting modern human traits like compassion or love (Spikins et. al. 2018 a). One counterargument is the “abandonment theory”, the belief that Neanderthals cast off individuals with mobility impairments. Archaeologists find evidence of this in the La Ferrassie cave system, in which remains of those with severe lower limb injuries were found separated from other members of the group, who all seemingly congregated at a “home base” deep within the caves (Spikins et. al. 2018 b). Researchers at the University of York refute this claim, explaining that individuals with limited mobility would not have been capable of traversing the cave system to reach the “home base.” While their handicaps prevented them from congregating with the group, they were not intentionally ostracized because of their injuries. The injured individuals in this group were upwards of 30 years old at the time of death, and advanced healing that would not have occurred naturally was seen on the fractured limbs (Spikins et. al. 2018 b). Incapable of independent movement, these Neanderthals would not have been able to hunt for themselves or set each other’s broken bones; thus, their longevity and healed injuries show a more able-bodied individual was provisioning for them and tending to their injuries. It is possible that the lower-lying area where these bodies were found served as an infirmary, keeping the ill and injured set apart from the healthy population but allowing them to be watched over.

Examining the list of benefits of Neanderthal healthcare, it is reasonable to assert that their practices were crucial in sustaining their species. As anatomically modern humans, it is difficult to conceptualize being informed by our predecessors to ensure our own longevity as a species. Yet, the unbridled compassion exhibited by the Neanderthals serves as a model for a successful society. We are not exempt from the laws that govern other animal species. It is also our goal to stave off extinction and grow our numbers so we may expand our culture. To continue advancing our species, we must make these small investments in the wellbeing of others, for the Neanderthals show us that these immediate expenditures pay off across greater timescales. In the modern era, healthcare can be convoluted by politics and economics. While we may be too entangled in this way of life to return to the simple practices of the Neanderthals, we can still take guidance from them in our everyday relations. Each individual holds some responsibility for upholding the good of the species. Caring for one another, regardless of how those we care for can return the favor or otherwise benefit our society, ultimately advances humanity. Clearly, Neanderthals loved one another, and we should emulate their compassion to better our own society.


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Alaina is an environmental studies major with minors in anthropology and Chesapeake Regional studies. She is passionate and curious about the intersections of history, culture, and ecology. Through her writing, art, and – hopefully – future career path, she hopes to inspire her fellow humans to embrace their role in the environment and society.

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