Neanderthal Got By With a Little Help from Friends

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?

6 thoughts on “Neanderthal Got By With a Little Help from Friends

  1. Thanks for this interesting comment. As Trinkaus & Vilotte say, external auditory exostoses (EAEs) in general “are associated with prolonged exposure of the auditory canal to cold water” in “people frequently engaged in aquatic resource exploitation”. H.erectus was typically (exclusively?) found with large bodies of water & edible shellfish (S.Munro 2010 Mollusks as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropological contexts, PhD thesis Austr.Natl.Univ.Canberra). On Java,H. erectus was found amid freshwater & marine shellfish & barnacles in deltaic or coastal sediments (Mojokerto), and H.erectus is known to have used shells as tools, and to have consumed shellfish (e.g. Choi & Driwantoro 2007 J.archaeol.Sci.34:48, Joordens cs 2014 Nature 518:228), and at Gesher Benot Ja’aqov in Israel, they regularly dived for waternuts in shallow water (Goren-Inbar cs 2017 “Beneath still waters – Multistage aquatic exploitation of Euryhale ferox (Salisb.) during the Acheulian”, in Fernandes & Meadows 2014 Internet Archaeol.).
    Neandertals also are invariably found next to large bodies of water such as riverside caves or oxbow lakes, typicaly with reeds & 1 or 2 spp of beaver, or else at sea-coasts (e.g. Neandertal sites all over the northern coasts of the Mediterranean), which suggests some populations might have seasonally followed the rivers to the coast (Verhaegen 2013 Hum.Evol.28:237).
    Trinkaus & S. Vilotte say that EAEs “indicate at least unilateral conductive hearing loss, a serious sensory deprivation for a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer”, but this is only so in air (air conduction), not in water (bone conduction): EAEs do not impair hearing in water.
    H.erectus & to a lesser degree H.neanderthalensis show pachyosteosclerosis (POS): dense & thick but brittle bones (due to “too much” calcium, e.g. in the human disease of osteopetrosis), a condition which is invariably seen in littoral animals that spent at least part of their lives in shallow waters (the heavy skeletons facilitate diving in shallow waters), usually for feeding on littoral foods such as seaweeds, shellfish, crayfish etc. (Verhaegen & Munro 2011 J.comp.hum.Biol.62:237). POS (much better than blows on the head!) might help explain at least some of the lesions seen in Shanidar 1 such as “the crushing fracture of his left orbit, the loss of his right forearm and hand, and evidence of an abnormal gait”, since these kinds of lesions are frequent in littoral animals (e.g. Madar 2007 J.Palaeontol.81:176). At least some populations of Neandertals collected shallow marine foods (e.g. Stringer cs 2008 Proc.natl.Acad.Sci. 105:10087). Therefore, the skeletal lesions of Shanidar 1 (EAEs, POS & possibly the hyperostosis) are not unexpected.
    Although there is no doubt that Shanidar 1 was incapable of hunting, and that Neandertals were very social creatures, it is well possible that the Shanidar 1 male (in spite of his many impairments) might still have collected shallow-aquatic foods such as molluscs & waternuts.

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