Deaf, injured Neanderthal survived with help from friends


About 50,000 years ago, an older Neanderthal who had multiple injuries and became deaf must have relied on the help of others in order to survive into his 40s, new research suggests.

“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,” says Erik Trinkaus, study coauthor and professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Shanidar 1 skull
The skull of a Neanderthal known as Shanidar 1 show signs of a blow to the head received at an early age. (Credit: Erik Trinkaus)

Ralph Solecki, an American archeologist, discovered the Neanderthal remains—known as Shanidar 1—in 1957 during excavations at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Previous studies of the Shanidar 1 skull and other skeletal remains had noted his multiple injuries. He sustained a serious blow to the side of the face, fractures and the eventual amputation of the right arm at the elbow, and injuries to the right leg, as well as a systematic degenerative condition.

In a new analysis of the remains, Trinkaus and Sébastien Villotte of the French National Centre for Scientific Research confirm that bony growths in Shanidar 1’s ear canals would have produced profound hearing loss. In addition to his other debilitations, this sensory deprivation would have made him highly vulnerable in his Pleistocene context.

Shanidar 1 skull
Two views of the ear canal of the Neanderthal fossil Shanidar 1 show substantial deformities that would likely have caused profound deafness. (Credit: Erik Trinkaus)

As the coauthors note, survival as a hunter-gatherer in the Pleistocene presented numerous challenges, and all of those difficulties would have been markedly pronounced with sensory impairment. Like other Neanderthals who have been noted for surviving with various injuries and limited arm use, Shanidar 1 most likely required significant social support to reach old age.

“The debilities of Shanidar 1, and especially his hearing loss, thereby reinforce the basic humanity of these much-maligned, archaic humans, the Neanderthals,” says Trinkaus.

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Gerry Everding-Washington University in St. Louis
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