Like any good human species, Neanderthals took care of each other; giving food and healthcare to the needy. In fact, Neanderthal medicine was quite complex, exploiting many local plants for their healing properties1. Which sounds great, but was it actually any good?

After all, chimps can self medicate with plants. Which is cool, but I wouln’t let them treat me.

Nevertheless, we do have a few examples of Neanderthal fossils living to a ripe old age thanks to medical help. Like the dude from Shanidar, who lost a limb and survived2. Or LF1, who made it to 50 despite suffering from scoliosis3. However, these are just anecdotal case studies of a couple of individuals. We need better data to properly test the quality of Neanderthal medicine.

Actual photo of Neanderthal outpatients, circa 100,000 BC (colourised)

Head wound!

What we really need to evaluate the efficacy of Neanderthal medicine is a large sample of their injuries. Ideally, also with data on contemporary humans to get a baseline for comparison. It turns out this big pile of data exists, as Beier et al. compared the prevalence of head wounds between Neanderthals and humans living ~50,000 years ago4.

However, they weren’t really interested in Neanderthal medicine when they started this research4. Rather, they were investigating the claim that Neanderthals suffered from more injuries than humans. It was thought this reflected differences in hunting techniques, risk-taking, violent conflict, or all of the above5. Beier et al. really wanted to see if these claims hold up.

Similarities in injuries between Neanderthals and rodeo riders if often seen as evidence for their more violent lifestyle5.

Plot twist: they didn’t. In both Neanderthals and humans, ~10% of the population suffered from head wounds; and in both species, the males had injuries more often than females. Clearly, Neanderthals weren’t the risk takers we once thought4.

In fact, it almost seemed like the opposite was happening, with modern humans having more instances of cranial trauma than Neanderthals. However, the statistical modelling indicated this may be a side-effect of having more human fossils that are better preserved4.

Roy, you’ve got a head wound

The failure of Neanderthal medicine

Despite finding broad similarities between head wounds in humans and Neanderthals, Beier et al. did identify one key difference, shown in the chart above. Can you spot it? In Neanderthals, younger individuals were more likely to have cranial trauma.

Because they’re fossils, this also means they were more likely to die from it. Or at least, die within a few years it, as most did show signs of healing, even though few made it into old age. Perhaps ongoing health problems from their injury finished them off. Meanwhile, all the cranial trauma in humans is healed and most of it is present in the elderly. This suggests they not only did humans outlive their injury but survived for a long time afterward4.

Le Moustier 1, an adolescent Neanderthal with a fracture to the right side of their cranium that occurred shortly before death.

The fact Neanderthals with head wounds had shorter lives than humans in a similar situation is pretty strong evidence that Neanderthal medicine wasn’t as good as human healthcare.

Of course, you may be able to think of some alternative explanations for this data that aren’t the result of differences in healthcare. And so were Beier et al., who came up with some other ideas of their own. Like, maybe Neanderthal youth were just more likely to get hurt, or suffered worse injuries when they did.

Or, on the flip side, maybe elderly humans were always getting to hilarious escapades that could cause cranial trauma. So, whilst sub-par Neanderthal medicine is the most plausible explanation, more research is needed to rule out alternatives. Like, how do you know this didn’t happen?

References

  1. Hardy, K., 2019. Paleomedicine and the use of plant secondary compounds in the Paleolithic and Early Neolithic. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews.
  2. Trinkaus, E. and Zimmerman, M.R., 1982. Trauma among the Shanidar Neandertals. American Journal of Physical Anthropology57(1), pp.61-76.
  3. Gómez-Olivencia, A., Quam, R., Sala, N., Bardey, M., Ohman, J.C. and Balzeau, A., 2018. La Ferrassie 1: New perspectives on a “classic” Neandertal. Journal of human evolution117, pp.13-32.
  4. Beier, J., Anthes, N., Wahl, J. and Harvati, K., 2018. Similar cranial trauma prevalence among Neanderthals and Upper Palaeolithic modern humans. Nature563(7733), p.686.
  5. Trinkaus, E., 2012. Neandertals, early modern humans, and rodeo riders. Journal of Archaeological Science39(12), pp.3691-3693.

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