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Neanderthals With Disabilities Survived Through Social Support


When the remains of this older Neanderthal were discovered at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1957, his many physical injuries and disabilities were immediately apparent. Analysis of his skull showed that he suffered a crushing blow to the head near his eye socket when he was young, likely causing some visual impairment. His right hand and forearm were missing, the result of an amputation. He likely walked with a serious gait, and he suffered from hyperostotic disease (DISH), which is associated with muscular pain and reduced mobility along the spine.

But a new analysis of this specimen, known as Shanidar 1, shows he had another major disability—one not noticed during earlier examinations. New research published in PLOS One reveals that the bony growths found in this Neanderthal’s ear canals would have resulted in serious hearing loss. So this Paleolithic-era hunter-gatherer, according to the updated analysis conducted by anthropologists Erik Trinkaus from Washington University in St. Louis and Sébastien Villotte of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, was profoundly deaf.

Yet despite his deafness and his other physical setbacks, Shanidar 1 died between 40 and 50 years of age (based on dental analysis). By Paleolithic standards, he was an old man. The only way he could have lived to such a ripe old age is by receiving considerable help from others. “More than his loss of a forearm, bad limp and other injuries, his deafness would have made him easy prey for the ubiquitous carnivores in his environment and dependent on other members of his social group for survival,” said Trinkaus in a statement.

Trinkaus and Villotte says it’s not surprising that his fellow Neanderthals were able and willing to provide this level of social support. Profoundly, these extinct humans buried their dead, a funeral act that anthropologists say is indicative of social cohesion, social roles, and mutual support. What’s more, Neanderthals used pigments and feathers to modify their appearance, which the authors say is “a reflection of social identity manipulation and social cohesion.” To say Neanderthals cared for the physically impaired is therefore not a stretch.

So if survival is all about the fittest when it comes to humanity, what were the disabled good for? I have two hypotheses to put forward – caring for the camp and the children and thepassing ofnecessaryinformation and skills.

They became good at thethings that they could do and were considered necessary enough that the others kept them.

Able bodied people can learn much from the disabled and thefocus it takes to get through a day. If you don’t believe me, spend a day in a wheelchair or with a blindfold On and see how long it takes for you to get frustrated. Then imagine how much it must take tooverwhelm a disabled person to the point they protest.

Neanderthals With Disabilities Survived Through Social Support

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