Does Wounded Skull Hint at Neandertal Nursing?

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Vandermeersch was never satisfied with the reconstruction but was hesitant to break apart the fragile skull. In 1996 he began a collaboration with Zollikofer and Marcia Ponce de León to produce a virtual reconstruction using computer techniques first used by Zollikofer in 1995.

Zollifkofer used a computer imaging technique to create a virtual image of the St. Césaire skull. The technique uses X-rays to take a series of cross-sectional images of a solid object that are combined to build a three-dimensional model.

From the virtual model Zollikofers team concluded that Vandermeerschs original reconstruction created a Neandertal with an unrealistically flat a face. When the virtual skull was reassembled to correct this—virtually breaking the assembled skull into the original bone fragments and reassembling them on the computer—a hole was revealed.

After examination of the reconstructed virtual St. Césaire skull, Zollikofers team concluded that the bone fragment at the edge of the hole, previously believed to be a natural suture of the skull bones, was actually a healed fracture.

Signs of Nurturing

"This is the first documentation that shows that after injury, these people took care of one another," says Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University, who recommended Zollikofers work for publication. "If anything, this new finding makes them [Neandertals] more human," he adds. "They had tempers and acted accordingly, but they also were compassionate and nurturing."

"Neandertals may not have been the club-swinging thugs they are often portrayed to be," says Zollikofer.

He says the find is also interesting because little is known about Neandertals and tool use. The depth of the lesion would have required some momentum, suggesting that the weapon might have been a stone blade bound to a wooden handle.

The authors suggest that the option of using tools as weapons may have raised the importance of social networks in Neandertal society.

But not all scholars agree with this view.

Tim White, a professor of human evolutionary studies at the University of California at Berkeley, disagrees with Zollikofers findings. On the basis of the paper, he sees no convincing evidence of a healed head wound. He thinks it could have been caused by a bump on the head.

"Arguments of lesion depth are made based on a drawing, but the conclusions are not even supported by the drawing," says White. "They should have provided photographic or scanning electron microscope images of the lesion," he adds.

But Ofer Bar-Yosef, an anthropologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees with Zollikofers analysis that the hole in the head is the result of an attack. "Why should Neandertals behave differently from other primates who are caring and loving and from time to time very violent?" He adds: "An act of interpersonal violence is all part of human behavior."

Zollikofer demonstrated computer assisted paleontology in 1995 when he used the technique to reassemble the skeleton of a young Neandertal girl.

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