New researchers find that they were genuinely caring of their peers.
London: Neanderthal may have an unwarranted image as brutish and uncaring, say scientists who claim that the archaic humans were compassionate beings who could provide knowledgeable response to injury and illness.
The study by the University of York in the UK, shows that Neanderthal health care was uncalculated and highly effective - challenging our notions that they were brutish compared to modern humans.
The care provided was widespread and should be seen as a "compassionate and knowledgeable response to injury and illness," researchers said. It is well known that Neanderthals sometimes provided care for the injured.
However, the study published in the journal World Archaeology suggests that they were genuinely caring of their peers, regardless of the level of illness or injury, rather than helping others out of self-interest.
"Our findings suggest Neanderthals didnt think in terms of whether others might repay their efforts, they just responded to their feelings about seeing their loved ones suffering," said Penny Spikins, senior lecturer at the University of York.
Most of the individuals archaeologists know about had a severe injury of some kind, with detailed pathologies highlighting a range of debilitating conditions and injuries.
In some cases the injuries occurred long before death and would have required monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care, researchers said. Analysis of a male aged around 25-40 at time of death revealed a catalogue of poor heath, including a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders.
His condition would have sapped his strength over the final 12 months of life and severely restricted his ability to contribute to the group. Yet, researchers argue he remained part of the group as his articulated remains were subsequently carefully buried.
"We argue that the social significance of the broader pattern of health care has been overlooked and interpretations of a limited or calculated response to health care have been influenced by preconceptions of Neanderthals as being different and even brutish," researchers said. "However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture," they said.
"The very similarity of Neanderthal health care to that of later periods has important implications. We argue that organised, knowledgeable and caring health care is not unique to our species but rather has a long evolutionary history," they added.