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French Fossils Reveal Caring Pre-Neandertals

hominid jaw
Image: COURTESY OF ERIK TRINKAUS

Life wasn't easy for the Neandertals. It probably took every ounce of strength and ingenuity they could muster to persist through Pleistocene Europe's often hostile conditions. For debilitated individuals, however, survival meant relying on care from group members. Though often portrayed as barbarous thugs, fossil evidence indicates that by 50,000 years ago, Neandertals were supporting group members unable to take care of themselves. Now new fossils from France indicate that Neandertal ancestors exhibited similarly compassionate behavior nearly 175,000 years ago. Researchers announced the findings today in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University and his colleagues studied jaw and teeth fossils unearthed from the Bau de l'Aubesier rockshelter in southeastern France. Analysis of the lower jawbone (see photo) revealed that all of the individual's teeth were lost or mechanically unstable at the time of death, owing to massive periodontal inflammation. Although the hominid was still capable of chewing, "his ability to masticate tough or hard food items," the team notes, "must have been severely compromised."

"This is the oldest examples of someone surviving for some period of time without an effective set of choppers," Trinkaus remarks. "There had to have been extensive preparation of food¿a combination of cutting and cooking¿before this person could eat. They had good cutting tools and controlled fire, but the absence of real hearths and tools that would have done more than dice the food suggests that this individual was being given softer food items by other members of the social group."

In addition to providing evidence suggestive of pre-Neandertal care giving, the new fossils add to a growing body of evidence that the Neandertals' derived features emerged gradually. The remains also indicate that although these early humans were more socially advanced than previously thought, they still differed from their successors in terms of their behavior and technology.

"Once We Were Not Alone," by Ian Tattersall (Scientific American, January 2000) is available for purchase at the Scientific American Archive. "Who Were the Neandertals?" by Kate Wong (Scientific American, April 2000), is available for purchase at the Scientific American Archive.
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