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.

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