The real Neanderthals: sick, injured … and caring

Models in the Neanderthaler Museum in Mettmann, Germany. © UNiesert/Frank Vincentz (montage: Abuk SABUK) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Museum displays about Neanderthals and other prehistoric people should include the sick, old and infirm rather than only showing strong healthy hunters. This is the view of Dr Penny Spikins, an archaeology lecturer from the University of York.

She believes that many current displays give an idealised impression of the past by showing young, fit men holding flint tools, spears or clubs. Speaking at the British Science Festival in Coventry, she claimed that hunter-gatherers were only healthy for around 10 per cent of their lives, because their demanding existence often left them injured. She also argued that early humans spent much of their lives looking after sick relatives, another aspect of life not usually shown in museum displays.  

Dr Spikins said: “A group of Neanderthals would look like they had been in the wars … there would be at least 50 per cent children and some elderly.” In her view “Evidence of care for the ill and injured is a side-lined area of archaeological evidence that people have assumed is not important for the history of what made us human … in fact, the story of human origins is one of interdependence and that’s why evidence for caring for the ill and injured is important.”

Archaeologists have found around 50 Neanderthal skeletons, of which 17 showed signs of illness or injuries which would have required constant care. One skeleton from France suffered from severe arthritis and was tended for at least six months before his death. Another, from Iraq, had a withered arm and leg, was blind in one eye and probably deaf, but was cared for by others in the community for 10-15 years.

Archaeological evidence also shows that Neanderthal knowledge of healthcare was quite advanced. Dental calculus from El Sidrón, Spain, included poplar bark, which contains aspirin, and they may also have used some form of antibiotics.

The models of Funnel Beaker people in the Hunebed Centre include children

As a footnote, it is worth noting that the human characters on display in the Hunebed Centre in Borger not only include children but also a man with a missing finger.

Text                 Alun Harvey


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