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Conflict and Care among the Neandertals

neandertal
Image: COURTESY OF THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

In recent years, much evidence has surfaced in support of a more sophisticated Neandertal. Most scholars now agree that these archaic humans were skilled hunters who conquered the frigid Ice Age winters, made beautiful tools and by some accounts even had symbolic culture. Reports of their brutishness, it seemed, had been greatly exaggerated. But savvy though the Neandertals were, new research affirms that they did not live in total harmony. According to a report published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysis of a skull belonging to a young adult Neandertal shows that the individual suffered a nasty slash from a sharp weapon most likely wielded by a disgruntled group member. The finding also speaks to the softer side of these hominids, however: visible bone healing indicates that the victim survived the blow--probably as a result of having been cared for by other Neandertals.

The skull in question was recovered in 1979 from a collapsed rock shelter located near the French village of St. C¿saire. Previously, researchers had physically reconstructed the fragmentary remains as best they could. But 36,000 years of erosion and burial had claimed large pieces of the skull and deformed other parts of it. To get a better idea of what the specimen looked like in its original state, Christoph P. E. Zollikofer and Marcia S. Ponce de Le¿n of the University of Z¿rich and their colleagues re-created it virtually, using data from computed tomography (CT) imaging of the fossilized remains. The computerized reconstruction (see image) revealed what appears to be a bony scar to the right of the skull's midline. Judging from the nearly straight border of the scar, the authors observe, "the individual most probably suffered a lesion from a blade-shaped object." The location and orientation of the scar, they add, are indicative of an intentional slash, rather than an accidental blow of some sort.

As to whodunit, the investigators note that, in theory, the conflict could have arisen between members of the same group, members of different groups or even members of different species. But the first scenario is the most likely one, they say, "because in socially organized species the vast majority of interpersonal interactions occur at the within-group level." Whatever the case, after the assault, the St. C¿saire Neandertal almost certainly needed a little help from his friends in order to pull through: the researchers surmise that the trauma probably led to heavy bleeding, cerebral commotion and temporary impairment.

"These findings add to the evidence that [Neandertals] used implements not only for hunting and food processing, but also in other behavioral contexts," Zollikofer and colleagues conclude. Indeed, the potential for high intragroup damage as a result of weapon use may well have helped shape human social behavior.

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