Humanity of the Neanderthals

I’ve often wondered what it is that makes us human. There have been many attempts to answer this question. We make tools. We walk upright. We developed speech. As we’ve learned more about the world, these answers have proved to be inadequate.

I recently came across an article that I believe clearly answers this question. It is embodied in a Neanderthal known as Shanidar 1.

Shanidar 1 lived about 50,000 years ago. He was a Neanderthal male who was evidently in his forties when he died. This was a good age for Neanderthals.What makes Shanidar 1 unique is his history of debilitating injuries which had healed.

Examination of his skeleton revealed that he suffered a crushing blow to his face early in life, which broke the bones in the left side of his head and may have caused blindness in his left eye. The blow would have caused damage to the left side of his brain, which would affect his ability to control the right side of his body. This injury led to his right arm failing to develop properly. At some point, his right arm was amputated at about the elbow. He most likely had difficulty in walking. He had a healed fracture of a bone in his right foot that would have probably made walking even more difficult. Examination of his skull showed bone growths in his ear canals, which would have left him deaf.

All of the injuries had healed. This is remarkable, considering that the Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers who were constantly migrating, following game. Shanidar 1 would have been unable to walk well, if at all. He could not have kept up. He would have slowed down the group. He could not contribute to the group’s needs; yet he lived to a good age. This means that the group had to have cared for him despite the burden he would have been on them.

We often have an image of Neanderthals as hulking brutes who grunted and clubbed their mates, but this image isn’t supported by the evidence. Shanidar 1 shows that they were as human and humane as we are.

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