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The skull of a Neandertal known as Shanidar 1 shows signs of a blow to the head received at an early age. CREDIT Erik Trinkaus

The skull of a Neandertal known as Shanidar 1 shows signs of a blow to the head received at an early age. CREDIT Erik Trinkaus

Shanidar 1 is a 50,000 years Neandertal which was discovered in by Ralph Solecki in 1957 during excavations at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shanidar 1 had a rough life. Prior studies noted multiple injuries to Shanidar 1; such as a 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 conditions. In a new analysis of the remains, published in PLoS One, Erik Trinkaus and Sébastien Villotte of the French National Centre for Scientific Research look at Shanidar 1’s ear canals.

Specifically they looked at external auditory exostosis (EAE) which we know produces profound hearing loss. EAE is commonly known as swimmer’s or surfer’s ear, and is due to bony growths into the auditory canal from the tympanic and/or squamous walls of the external auditory meatus and the margins of the auditory porus due to exposure to cold water. EAE is documented in Holocene skeletal samples, a couple of Middle Pleistocene humans, several Late Pleistocene archaic humans, and a few early modern humans and there is an absence in other Pleistocene humans, which certainly doesn’t make EAE unique. But what makes EAE in Shanidar is it is compounded with all of his other injuries.

Two views of the ear canal of the Neandertal fossil Shanidar 1 show substantial deformities that would likely have caused profound deafness. CREDIT Erik Trinkaus

Two views of the ear canal of the Neandertal fossil Shanidar 1 show substantial deformities that would likely have caused profound deafness. CREDIT Erik Trinkaus

As you can imagine survival as a hunter-gatherer in the Pleistocene presented numerous challenges, and this form of sensory deprivation would have made him highly vulnerable in his Pleistocene context in addition to all his ailments. The authors lay the argument that Shanidar 1 most likely required significant social support to reach the ripe old age of 40 or so. From Trinkaus,

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

What do you think, is this a compelling argument?

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