Does Wounded Skull Hint at Neandertal Nursing?

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
April 23, 2002
European researchers have investigated a 36,000-year-old case of assault and battery. Their conclusion: the victim, a Neandertal, possibly male, received a violent blow to the head. Presumably he survived, however, because somebody nursed him back to health.

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by Christoph Zollikofer, a biologist at the University of Zrich, used a computer to reconstruct a skull revealing the features of a Neandertal man who lived about 6,000 years, before the species became extinct.

The virtual reconstruction revealed a hole in the skull that Zollikofers team believes was caused from a blow by a tool wielded by another Neandertal.

Using a tool, intended for hunting or processing food, as a weapon implies a certain level of cognitive ability, says Zollikofer, currently a research associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

"A tool has tremendous damage potential," says Zollikofer, "and implies that sophisticated behavior was needed to balance its traditional use with its use as a weapon."

He says the virtual skull reveals not only that the Neandertals—an ancient prehistoric race that inhabited Europe, the Near East, and Central Asia about 200,000 to 30,000 years ago—were capable of violence, but that they also had a softer side.

Zollikofer claims that without intensive care from other Neandertals, the individual—probably suffering from dizziness, nausea, and blood loss—would likely have perished from the wound. A close examination of x-ray images of skull fragments, says Zollikofer, revealed "telltale signs of the healing process," such as bone splinters that had been reattached to the skull.

Trove of Hominid Fossils

Franois Léveque, a co-author of this study, first discovered the skull in 1979 in a collapsed rock shelter near the town of St. Césaire in southwest France.

The site, which was discovered during road construction, contained an undisturbed sandwich of hominid remains. The deepest layers, which contained early Neandertal bones and tools, were covered by layers, with late Neandertals and on top, early modern human remains.

The St. Césaire skull, consisting of about 50 fragments, was unearthed from dirt containing tools corresponding to the Châtelperronian period—between 40,00 and 30,000 years ago, when Neandertal culture experienced an abrupt change in tool-making styles.

Léveque gave the delicate bone fragments to Bernard Vandermeersch, an anthrologist at the University of Bordeaux 1 in France and also a co-author of the study, who assembled them with glue more than 20 years ago.

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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