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  • In the late 1950s, high up in a mountain cave in Iraq, a skeleton was discovered that would

  • drive us to re-think what it means to be human.

  • The skeleton was not of a modern human, like us.

  • Instead, it was one of at least 9 sets of remains of Neandertals.

  • This particular specimen came to be known as Shanidar 1, and based on all of the evidence,

  • he had lived a difficult life.

  • By the time he died, maybe in his 40s, he had sustained a serious blow to his skull

  • just above his left eye.

  • He had lost his right forearm.

  • And his bones bore the signs of painful degenerative joint disease throughout his right lower leg,

  • possibly the result of a major injury to the right half of his body.

  • Now, the point here is not that Shanidar 1 had sustained so many injuries and coped with

  • so many ailments.

  • Pathological conditions like his show up in ancient Homo sapiens pretty much as often

  • as they do in Neandertals.

  • I mean: Life back in the Pleistocene Epoch, I don't know if you remember, but it was hard for everyone.

  • The important thing to note about Shanidar 1 is that all of his injuries had healed well

  • before he died, perhaps many years before.

  • For his remaining years, he probably couldn't have moved on his own very freely, or very

  • far.

  • He likely had impaired vision and hearing.

  • So how did he live so long?

  • He must've been cared for, by his own kind.

  • And at the time when Shanidar 1 was discovered, this was a pretty revolutionary idea.

  • Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Neandertals were thought to have beenprimitive.

  • Unintelligent, hunched-overcavemen, for lack of a better word.

  • But the discoveries made in that Iraqi cave provided some of the earliest clues that Neanderthals

  • actually behaved -- and likely thought and felt -- a lot like we do.

  • Now, it's usually very difficult to figure out how a hominin behaved, just based on its

  • bones.

  • But oddly enough, one of the major lines of evidence about what Neandertals were really

  • like has come from an unlikely source: skeletal pathology, the marks left on bones by illness

  • or injury.

  • Lots of hominin remains that we find from the Pleistocene show evidence of things like

  • dental problems, healed breaks, and osteoarthritis.

  • These pathologies run the gamut from just annoying to downright life-threatening.

  • And over the nearly two centuries that we've been digging up Neandertals, we've realized

  • that there was no way some of these individuals could've survived without serious, hands-on

  • help from members of their own groups.

  • So, instead of being primitive cavemen, Neandertals like Shanidar-1 -- and many more like him

  • -- have taught us an enormous amount about ourselves.

  • Because it turns out, that big jumble of wonderful things that we love about ourselves -- the

  • humaneness, the compassion, and the kindness that we callhumanity” -- was probably

  • not unique to us, at all.

  • More than 40 years before Shanidar 1 was unearthed, another Neandertal specimen was discovered

  • that had a powerful impact on how we think about Neandertals, even today.

  • It was 1908 when the first nearly complete Neandertal skeleton was discovered in a small

  • cave in France near the town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

  • The bones were about 60,000 years old and belonged to an adult male who became known

  • as the Old Man of La Chapelle.

  • And although he's calledOld,” estimates of his age vary a lot.

  • Some anthropologists think he was between 25 and 35, based on the condition of things

  • like his hip joints, but others think he was over 40 …

  • ...which isn't very old by my standards, but it would've made him an old Neandertal.

  • His skeleton was described by French anthropologist Marcellin Boule in a detailed monograph published

  • in 1911.

  • He compared the Old Man's bones to those of the few other Neandertals known at the

  • time, and to the skeletons of modern humans and apes.

  • His meticulous descriptions were a big step forward for the field of paleoanthropology;

  • but his interpretation of the Old Man's anatomy would be hard to shake.

  • He reconstructed the Neandertal as a slouching creature with bent knees, unable to even stand

  • fully upright - the same kind of primitive caveman that Neandertals are still often thought

  • as today.

  • It wasn't until the 1950s that ideas about Neandertals really started to change.

  • The decades after the discovery of the Old Man had seen a boom in the excavation of earlier

  • hominins, like the australopithecines and Homo erectus.

  • And once they were welcomed into our family tree, well, the Neandertals stopped seeming

  • so strange and primitive.

  • And it was while this rehabilitation of the Neandertals' image was going on that an

  • anthropologist named Ralph Solecki led a team into the Zagros Mountains of Iraq, to excavate

  • a site called Shanidar Cave.

  • There they discovered the remains of at least seven adult Neandertals and two infants, dated

  • to three different occupation periods between 100,000 and just 45,000 years ago.

  • And one of the striking things about these skeletons was that at least five of them - all

  • of adult males - showed evidence of pathological conditions.

  • They ranged from relatively minor, like a fully healed scalp wound and osteoarthritis

  • in the hands, to the kinds of things that would land you or me in the emergency room.

  • For example, the individual known as Shanidar 3 - a male in his early 40s - probably broke,

  • or at least badly sprained, his right ankle at some point in his life.

  • And, while it did heal, he ended up with bony spurs and degenerative joint disease in that

  • ankle that probably caused him pain and limited his mobility.

  • Shanidar 3 also has a groove on the top edge of his left ninth rib - evidence of a wound

  • deep enough to have potentially collapsed his lung.

  • Based on the condition of the bone around the groove, it looks like he lived for at

  • least a few weeks, and maybe up to two months, after the injury.

  • And of course, once the scientists studied

  • Shanidar 1, they found that life for Neandertals could be even more taxing.

  • Like Shanidar 3, Shanidar 1 was an adult male between 35 and 50 years old.

  • But long before he died, he suffered a crushing fracture to the side of his left eye socket

  • which might've caused blindness or a brain injury.

  • He also had bony growths in his ear canals, which probably impacted his hearing.

  • Meanwhile, the bones of his right shoulder and upper arm were smaller than those of his

  • left, possibly because of a nerve injury and paralysis that happened early in his life.

  • And his right humerus had been broken and healed in two places, with the bone ending

  • just above the elbow joint.

  • This means that either his right forearm was amputated in an injury, or the humerus was

  • so badly broken that the two ends didn't heal back together, and the lower part of

  • the arm was somehow removed later.

  • Then there were the problems in his lower body.

  • He had a healed fracture in his right foot and a painful degenerative joint disease throughout

  • that foot, ankle, and knee, possibly caused by some serious trauma to the right half of

  • his body.

  • So, when you put all of the evidence together, it seems that Shanidar 1 may have been blind

  • in one eye and deaf in at least one ear.

  • He probably walked with a bad limp, which made getting around hard and likely painful.

  • And he had only his left hand, which limited his ability to perform lots of tasks.

  • It took decades for experts to find and describe all of the pathologies that Shanidar-1 suffered

  • from.

  • But from the very beginning, Solecki saw something striking among all of those injuries: In those

  • bones, he saw the very humanity of the Shanidar Neandertals.

  • Based on all the healed injuries on the skeletons, Solecki concluded that many of these Neandertals

  • would've needed extensive care and accommodation by their groups.

  • For example, in the short term, the broken bones of Shanidar 1 would've kept him immobile

  • for weeks, if not months.

  • So his group would've had to feed him and help him get around.

  • And over the longer term, the loss of his hand, his compromised senses, and the extensive

  • osteoarthritis in his right leg likely meant that he couldn't help with some of the tasks

  • that were important to the survival of the group, like hunting.

  • So instead, his group would've had to compensate for this in some way, like giving him things

  • to do that didn't require moving around and keeping him out of dangerous situations,

  • like encounters with predators.

  • He might've even slowed the group down - but they didn't leave him behind.

  • In 1971, Solecki published a book on the Shanidar

  • skeletons making the case that Neandertals were not dumb cavemen.

  • They must have been human-like in their capacity for compassion, in order for Shanidar 1 to

  • have survived well into adulthood.

  • And with this changing view of Neandertals, the time was ripe for scientists to reconsider

  • the Old Man of La Chapelle.

  • In 1985, anthropologist Erik Trinkaus published a paper that revisited Boule's original

  • description of the hominin.

  • He showed that Boule's reconstruction of the Old Man wasn't affected by the Old Man's

  • pathologies, as some had argued.

  • Instead, he said that Boule was just flat out wrong.

  • But, like Shanidar 1, the Old Man did turn out to have suffered from many ailments, and

  • those too provided even more important clues about what life was like for Neandertals in

  • the Pleistocene.

  • For one thing, the Old Man had lost maybe as many as 15 teeth well before he died.

  • He also had severe osteoarthritis in much of his neck and shoulders that likely were

  • painful and affected his ability to move his upper body.

  • His left hip socket was also severely affected by osteoarthritis and a chronic bone infection

  • that might've formed an abscess.

  • So, in recent years, experts have suggested that, like Shanidar 1, the Old Man must have

  • needed help from members of his group to survive.

  • To make up for his tooth loss, for example, he might've needed help with eating, like

  • preparing foods that he could chew.

  • The osteoarthritis in his upper back and shoulders limited his ability to hunt or carry loads.

  • And to accommodate his arthritic hip, his group might've had to move slower, move

  • around less, or help him get around.

  • And these would've been serious limitations for a group of hominins in the Pleistocene.

  • We know that Neandertals lived active, mobile lives that came with a lot of physical demands.

  • They successfully adapted to living in mountainous terrain and harsh climates.

  • And we know that life back then was hard for Homo sapiens too.

  • Adult mortality patterns and the frequency of pathological conditions are pretty much

  • the same across both groups.

  • But it's only been within the last decade or so that anthropologists have started to

  • really study care-giving among our hominin relatives.

  • And Shanidar 1 and the Old Man of La Chapelle are prime case studies; the very fact that

  • they survived as long as they did can be seen as evidence of the care that they received.

  • So, of course, we should still be proud of what we call ourhumanity” -- our compassion,

  • our empathy, our ability to act in the interest of others rather than ourselves.

  • It's a key part of what makes us human.

  • But it seems that those qualities that we prize about ourselves have not always been

  • exclusive to us.

  • Even though we're the only humans left, we may not have invented what it means to

  • be human.

  • Ok now Kallie wanted me to remind you that

  • Another key trait of hominins is personal adornment!

  • So might I suggest our new Eons socks, or shirts, or enamel pins?

  • You can find them all at DFTBA.com.

  • Also big thanks to this month's Eontologists: Patrick Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng,

  • Sean Dennis, Hollis, and Steve!

  • To become an Eonite, pledge your support at patreon.com/eons!

  • All membership levels have access to our Discord, where Kallie and I hang out, and a podcast

  • only for Eonites!

  • And as always, thank you for joining me in the Konstantin Haase Studio.

  • Be sure to subscribe at youtube.com/eons.

In the late 1950s, high up in a mountain cave in Iraq, a skeleton was discovered that would

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The Neanderthals That Taught Us About Humanity

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/03
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