The Neanderthals That Taught Us About Humanity

The Neanderthals That Taught Us About Humanity

In the late 1950s, high up in a mountain cave
in Iraq, a skeleton was discovered that would drive us to re-think what it means to be human. The skeleton was not of a modern human, like
us. Instead, it was one of at least 9 sets of
remains of Neandertals. This particular specimen came to be known
as Shanidar 1, and based on all of the evidence, he had lived a difficult life. By the time he died, maybe in his 40s, he
had sustained a serious blow to his skull just above his left eye. He had lost his right forearm. And his bones bore the signs of painful degenerative
joint disease throughout his right lower leg, possibly the result of a major injury to the
right half of his body. Now, the point here is not that Shanidar 1
had sustained so many injuries and coped with so many ailments. Pathological conditions like his show up in
ancient Homo sapiens pretty much as often as they do in Neandertals. I mean: Life back in the Pleistocene Epoch, I don’t know if you remember, but it was hard for everyone. The important thing to note about Shanidar
1 is that all of his injuries had healed well before he died, perhaps many years before. For his remaining years, he probably couldn’t
have moved on his own very freely, or very far. He likely had impaired vision and hearing. So how did he live so long? He must’ve been cared for, by his own kind. And at the time when Shanidar 1 was discovered,
this was a pretty revolutionary idea. Throughout the first half of the 20th century,
Neandertals were thought to have been … primitive. Unintelligent, hunched-over … cavemen, for
lack of a better word. But the discoveries made in that Iraqi cave
provided some of the earliest clues that Neanderthals actually behaved — and likely thought and
felt — a lot like we do. Now, it’s usually very difficult to figure
out how a hominin behaved, just based on its bones. But oddly enough, one of the major lines of
evidence about what Neandertals were really like has come from an unlikely source: skeletal
pathology, the marks left on bones by illness or injury. Lots of hominin remains that we find from
the Pleistocene show evidence of things like dental problems, healed breaks, and osteoarthritis. These pathologies run the gamut from just
annoying to downright life-threatening. And over the nearly two centuries that we’ve
been digging up Neandertals, we’ve realized that there was no way some of these individuals
could’ve survived without serious, hands-on help from members of their own groups. So, instead of being primitive cavemen, Neandertals
like Shanidar-1 — and many more like him — have taught us an enormous amount about
ourselves. Because it turns out, that big jumble of wonderful
things that we love about ourselves — the humaneness, the compassion, and the kindness
that we call “humanity” — was probably not unique to us, at all. More than 40 years before Shanidar 1 was unearthed,
another Neandertal specimen was discovered that had a powerful impact on how we think
about Neandertals, even today. It was 1908 when the first nearly complete
Neandertal skeleton was discovered in a small cave in France near the town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The bones were about 60,000 years old and
belonged to an adult male who became known as the Old Man of La Chapelle. And although he’s called “Old,” estimates
of his age vary a lot. Some anthropologists think he was between
25 and 35, based on the condition of things like his hip joints, but others think he was
over 40 … …which isn’t very old by my standards,
but it would’ve made him an old Neandertal. His skeleton was described by French anthropologist
Marcellin Boule in a detailed monograph published in 1911. He compared the Old Man’s bones to those
of the few other Neandertals known at the time, and to the skeletons of modern humans
and apes. His meticulous descriptions were a big step
forward for the field of paleoanthropology; but his interpretation of the Old Man’s anatomy
would be hard to shake. He reconstructed the Neandertal as a slouching
creature with bent knees, unable to even stand fully upright – the same kind of primitive
caveman that Neandertals are still often thought as today. It wasn’t until the 1950s that ideas about
Neandertals really started to change. The decades after the discovery of the Old
Man had seen a boom in the excavation of earlier hominins, like the australopithecines and
Homo erectus. And once they were welcomed into our family
tree, well, the Neandertals stopped seeming so strange and primitive. And it was while this rehabilitation of the
Neandertals’ image was going on that an anthropologist named Ralph Solecki led a team
into the Zagros Mountains of Iraq, to excavate a site called Shanidar Cave. There they discovered the remains of at least
seven adult Neandertals and two infants, dated to three different occupation periods between
100,000 and just 45,000 years ago. And one of the striking things about these
skeletons was that at least five of them – all of adult males – showed evidence of pathological
conditions. They ranged from relatively minor, like a
fully healed scalp wound and osteoarthritis in the hands, to the kinds of things that
would land you or me in the emergency room. For example, the individual known as Shanidar
3 – a male in his early 40s – probably broke, or at least badly sprained, his right ankle
at some point in his life. And, while it did heal, he ended up with bony
spurs and degenerative joint disease in that ankle that probably caused him pain and limited
his mobility. Shanidar 3 also has a groove on the top edge
of his left ninth rib – evidence of a wound deep enough to have potentially collapsed
his lung. Based on the condition of the bone around
the groove, it looks like he lived for at least a few weeks, and maybe up to two months,
after the injury. And of course, once the scientists studied Shanidar 1, they found that life for Neandertals
could be even more taxing. Like Shanidar 3, Shanidar 1 was an adult male
between 35 and 50 years old. But long before he died, he suffered a crushing
fracture to the side of his left eye socket which might’ve caused blindness or a brain
injury. He also had bony growths in his ear canals,
which probably impacted his hearing. Meanwhile, the bones of his right shoulder
and upper arm were smaller than those of his left, possibly because of a nerve injury and
paralysis that happened early in his life. And his right humerus had been broken and
healed in two places, with the bone ending just above the elbow joint. This means that either his right forearm was
amputated in an injury, or the humerus was so badly broken that the two ends didn’t
heal back together, and the lower part of the arm was somehow removed later. Then there were the problems in his lower
body. He had a healed fracture in his right foot
and a painful degenerative joint disease throughout that foot, ankle, and knee, possibly caused
by some serious trauma to the right half of his body. So, when you put all of the evidence together,
it seems that Shanidar 1 may have been blind in one eye and deaf in at least one ear. He probably walked with a bad limp, which
made getting around hard and likely painful. And he had only his left hand, which limited
his ability to perform lots of tasks. It took decades for experts to find and describe
all of the pathologies that Shanidar-1 suffered from. But from the very beginning, Solecki saw something
striking among all of those injuries: In those bones, he saw the very humanity of the Shanidar
Neandertals. Based on all the healed injuries on the skeletons,
Solecki concluded that many of these Neandertals would’ve needed extensive care and accommodation
by their groups. For example, in the short term, the broken
bones of Shanidar 1 would’ve kept him immobile for weeks, if not months. So his group would’ve had to feed him and
help him get around. And over the longer term, the loss of his
hand, his compromised senses, and the extensive osteoarthritis in his right leg likely meant
that he couldn’t help with some of the tasks that were important to the survival of the
group, like hunting. So instead, his group would’ve had to compensate
for this in some way, like giving him things to do that didn’t require moving around
and keeping him out of dangerous situations, like encounters with predators. He might’ve even slowed the group down – but
they didn’t leave him behind. In 1971, Solecki published a book on the Shanidar skeletons making the case that Neandertals
were not dumb cavemen. They must have been human-like in their capacity
for compassion, in order for Shanidar 1 to have survived well into adulthood. And with this changing view of Neandertals,
the time was ripe for scientists to reconsider the Old Man of La Chapelle. In 1985, anthropologist Erik Trinkaus published
a paper that revisited Boule’s original description of the hominin. He showed that Boule’s reconstruction of
the Old Man wasn’t affected by the Old Man’s pathologies, as some had argued. Instead, he said that Boule was just flat
out wrong. But, like Shanidar 1, the Old Man did turn
out to have suffered from many ailments, and those too provided even more important clues
about what life was like for Neandertals in the Pleistocene. For one thing, the Old Man had lost maybe
as many as 15 teeth well before he died. He also had severe osteoarthritis in much
of his neck and shoulders that likely were painful and affected his ability to move his
upper body. His left hip socket was also severely affected
by osteoarthritis and a chronic bone infection that might’ve formed an abscess. So, in recent years, experts have suggested
that, like Shanidar 1, the Old Man must have needed help from members of his group to survive. To make up for his tooth loss, for example,
he might’ve needed help with eating, like preparing foods that he could chew. The osteoarthritis in his upper back and shoulders
limited his ability to hunt or carry loads. And to accommodate his arthritic hip, his
group might’ve had to move slower, move around less, or help him get around. And these would’ve been serious limitations
for a group of hominins in the Pleistocene. We know that Neandertals lived active, mobile
lives that came with a lot of physical demands. They successfully adapted to living in mountainous
terrain and harsh climates. And we know that life back then was hard for
Homo sapiens too. Adult mortality patterns and the frequency
of pathological conditions are pretty much the same across both groups. But it’s only been within the last decade
or so that anthropologists have started to really study care-giving among our hominin
relatives. And Shanidar 1 and the Old Man of La Chapelle
are prime case studies; the very fact that they survived as long as they did can be seen
as evidence of the care that they received. So, of course, we should still be proud of
what we call our “humanity” — our compassion, our empathy, our ability to act in the interest
of others rather than ourselves. It’s a key part of what makes us human. But it seems that those qualities that we
prize about ourselves have not always been exclusive to us. Even though we’re the only humans left,
we may not have invented what it means to be human. Ok now Kallie wanted me to remind you that Another key trait of hominins is personal
adornment! So might I suggest our new Eons socks, or
shirts, or enamel pins? You can find them all at Also big thanks to this month’s Eontologists:
Patrick Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng, Sean Dennis, Hollis, and Steve! To become an Eonite, pledge your support at! All membership levels have access to our Discord,
where Kallie and I hang out, and a podcast only for Eonites! And as always, thank you for joining me in
the Konstantin Haase Studio. Be sure to subscribe at

100 thoughts on “The Neanderthals That Taught Us About Humanity

  1. Should be noted that not a single buried neanderthal ever had leg injuries.
    They left behind those who couldn’t keep up with the group.

  2. Yes it was definately the Neanderthals that showed us to destroy the environment, rely solely on crude oil products, computerize the planet and let people starve to death with no access to health care.

  3. I'm convinced Creb from Jean M. Auel's Children of the Earth series/Ayla and the Clan of the Cave Bear is based on specimen 1 o.o

  4. The ability to communicate facilitates culture. Culture facilitates the development of empathy. True empathy is not innate to any animal including humans – no one is born empathetic. We have to teach it as a value, transmit it through culture. When we fail to do this, Empathy and all its benefits for society will disappear. It's already happening now. Love children and teach them well like the Neanderthals did, like our ancestors did, because it's the only reason we survived as a species this long. Without empathy and cooperative action humans would never have survived and that is as true today as ever.

  5. The letters in the word Neanderthals form a Netherlands anagram. Co-incidence? I think not – today's Dutch are living proof that Neanderthals did NOT go extinct!

  6. As much as I want to see compassion and empathy in the world, I'm just wondering why the researchers settled on those emotions/virtues as the unique explanation for why these Neanderthals were cared for. Is it just a coincidence that only males appeared to have been cared for? The real moral measure of the civilization of any human society is how it cares for the weak. The video does mention that one man may have received his serious injury in youth, but the video could have done a better job of explaning why the evidence preferentialy points to compassion as the motivation for the care.

  7. The human creature thinks much too highly of itself, … the evidence shows that they are but great parasites. Filthy creatures really.

  8. Can this mean that the Neanderthals groups could be bigger than just the size of a family? But still smaller than the human tribes?

  9. Joining a college was the best thing that could happen after taking an anthro course I feel so “well educated” isn’t the word but I’m much more comfortable with the langue used and I can understand everything in 60% more depth now! Love these videos

  10. Loved it. But sorry, cooperation was invented in lower species, help the kind with simple rules and fight the unlike if they are a menace. We moderns only invented "what in return" and racism.
    I remember a lecture about cooperation rules… built In DNA.

  11. Lots of social animals did that…. it’s pretty low bar for humanity… sadly human are often least human than animal

  12. Sometimes you say “thal”; sometimes “t’al”. Intentional? I prefer the latter, as closer to the original German.

  13. Also- Considering that Neanderthal bone-structure is much more bulky than homo-sapiens, meaning that they could perhaps have been much stronger or maybe a little more durable than us.

  14. The case can be made that all social animals show empathy and care for the old or injured. take dolphins or wolves for example

  15. It's always heart warming to learn something like this that debunks myths of people (or animals) being heartless. Great video.

  16. Humanity is unique those who act like humans were and are humans we haven’t changed but as long as we’ve been here we’ve been human I don’t believe those people we are calling Neanderthals are anything less they are human.

  17. I highly recommend Trey's video about prehistoric disabilities which touches and deepens on the topic of this video!

  18. “And long after you’re dead, your descendants are going to talk about all your problems (and show pictures of your bones) on YouTube, and keep your remains in a glass box, on display. You are welcome!”

  19. How many people over which time periods actually believe that empathy is unique to humans, let alone sapiens? There's been anecdotes about animal empathy since the earliest oral history. If you only count scientific understanding, then it should be pretty clear since Darwin that empathy is a useful adaptation for any social animal, so you'd expect empathy to correlate with the complexity of social behaviour in any species. To single out humans is so ignorant it's hard to comprehend, but maybe that's just me looking at it with the power of hindsight. Did significant numbers of people at some point actually believe that???

  20. H. Neanderthal are not a separate species from H. Sapiens. They can reproduce with H.Sapiens and produce a fertile offspring. Therefore, they are simply a subspecies.

  21. I guess the irony of the title, that these "cave men" should teach us about humanity, is unintended. There's nothing more lacking in this world than compassion.

  22. Did he use his bone spurs as an excuse to dodge the draft?

    Because some say Neanderthals are still doing that to this day.

  23. 4:15 the individual known as Shanidar 3 had bone spurs.
    Do you suppose he was the leader?
    Might be a moral there somewhere!

  24. I would love to see more Precambrian stuff from you guys! I know there isnt all that much information about it but I'm sure you guys know more about it than I do. I'd also love a series that covers what caused each change in period, like what separates the Jurassic from the Cretaceous

  25. Do you think this old men were like your grandpa that take care of because you love him, or like a shaman, an elder that may be physically dispaired but is very wise and still important to the group?

  26. "we are the only humans left",  not by a long shot ! Though some may need to rethink what it is to be human, we are not the last of the hominin species. If the scientific community would get their act together, instead of regurgitating outdated ideas of yesteryear, they may just find a little credibility with regard extant humans.

  27. I just imagined that two species (us and Neanderthals) living together, I am in the same group. Never saw such a depiction (illustration, information etc.) and don't know was there such an evidence or not. But this (different species corperating) is not something new in the nature, and we know we met them, even carrying their genes (hybridization occured). So, might be cool!

  28. The same sort of interpersonal care can be implied from observing one of the hominins excavated at Dmanisi, Georgia. One of the skulls (can't remember the name for the life of me right now) had no teeth associated with it. This, in and of itself, is no great surprise, as, depending on preservation, teeth can go flying in all sorts of directions post mortem, and can become lost during excavation, as well. The remarkable thing, is that this individual had lost all its teeth well before it died, as evidenced by the completely smoothed, and therefore healed, upper and lower jaw.
    Loss of teeth, as mentioned in this video, could have required that very specific sorts of food be prepared for the individual that currently found themselves without their dentures, and the fact that the individual survived many years after the loss of all their teeth would seem to imply that conspecific care was at work. That is, other members of the impaired individual's group helped to take care of them by preparing specific, soft foods for them.
    This sort of stuff is why I love studying archaeology and anthropology!

  29. or, maybe our species survived because we lacked the level of compassion of our hominid ancestors. Perhaps Homo Sapiens have a weak sense of compassion which explains why we are always fighting and tribalizing.

  30. "Even though we're the only humans left, we may not have invented what it means to be human". That's very beautiful. Also, I agree. Neanderthals were humans. Less intelligent, but they also were. I really think it's a shame they no longer exist.

  31. With out proper pain management, that kind of ear problem would be painful enough, to want to have someone bash your head in…

  32. I live in Southern Florida where we have hurricanes and Tropical Storms every year. Is there such thing as an evolution of hurricanes. I know it’s based on temperature and pressure so we’re there times when hurricanes just didn’t exist for millions of years cause it was too hot or too cold? I’m sure during the frozen times when earth was all ice there wasn’t really much of a chance for one.

  33. that time when Caucasians brought civilization to Humanity, and i hear they can fly now, and some say even went to the Moon and back. Egypt, Sumerians, Levant, Greece, Rome, Europe, and proto Indo Europeans… ect…

  34. One key thing to mention about Africans (particulaty Bantu descendants) is that they have been found very recently to be mixed with unknown species of Human , possibly homo Heidelbergnesis.

  35. I've always been curious, how are people so confident about the information and history about the bones when they endured thousands of years of the environment?

    Was there really that much evidence that Shanidar 1's bones didn't just deform overtime, like the right socket being depressed by rocks and limbs going missing long after he died?
    Even a few decades ago it wasn't strange to find bones that are warped quite significantly for various reasons besides disease and injury.

    There are some evidence that I can understand because they are very distinctive, like claw and bite marks from predators, but some of them like Shanidar 1 just seems too natural to conclude that Shanidar suffered some of these injuries and deformiertes after all that time in the environment where it's normal for biology to degrade, deform and change compounds.

    Just curious, because no matter where I looked, no one really mentioned these things except for other science videos where they do talk about bones and carcasses breaking down in process and remembering those made neanderthal videos quite confusing for me.

  36. Shanidar 1 i believe was the inspiration for a character from the clan of the cave bear book named Creb. Poor creb..

  37. So how does sociopathic behavior blend into this picture of "humanity"? They would have no doubt been shunned by their tribes for their selfish narcissistic and dishonest behavior. Too bad they seem to be growing in numbers today and have become rather successful in careers like politicians, CEO's and other positions of power and control over others.

  38. Kindness and compassion is still not unique to humans. I've seen species of apes and monkeys with more humanity towards each other than humans.

  39. Skeptics and pseudo-intellectuals would say its an isolated event or just actions that isn't driven by morale or compassion

  40. The one thing that irritates me about these discoveries is the assumption that when a limb is missing, the claim is almost always made that it happened while they were alive. As if to suggest it never could be a case of a scavenger animal that to the limb off for their meal. Why not just admit, you're not entirely sure what took place 20,000 years ago. 😒

  41. It's not unique to us every species on earth human dogs and extr feel love and compassion halp….. The life on this little blue bubble we live is so complex and amazing….

  42. I can't get on board with considering neanderthals a different species if they bred with non-neanderthal humans and made fertile offspring. Every non-African human is part neanderthal but neanderthals weren't human? That doesn't make great sense given the most typical definition of "species". Presumably making fertile offspring wasn't a freak occurrence, but I don't know enough about the genetic grey area to wade into it.

  43. Even animals show compassion – so to make so much of this in Neanderthals isn't very surprising. I am always amused when Neanderthals are depicted with light skin, wavy hair and hairless bodies – how on earth do you know that? You are making a lot of assumptions here. This was a disappointing presentation.

  44. Ideas for episodes!, Why we react in the way we do? like.. we have dejavu, why we build houses in the way we do, how the men get to know which fruit eat and don't, a little about the history and diversity of ants.

  45. una mañana en Europa , cuando tomaba café en un sitio a gran altura sobre el nivel del mar ví caminando en la calle a alguien que me pareció un Neandertal a pesar de las sombras del amanecer , creo que aún sobreviven

  46. Fun Fact: Shanidar Cave was the setting for Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the skeletons were models for her characters.

  47. It'd be incredibly interesting to see how smart neanderthals were compared to us. Whether or not they have the same capacity of knowledge as us. What if we could raise a neanderthal as one of us, teach it the same as us. I wonder if it would be capable of learning the things we can, or if they aren't quite as smart and couldn't go as far as us.. or on the other side maybe they are actually smarter than us, as in they could learn things faster etc.

  48. I have heard Neanderthals could take more of a beating by how they were built so one has to wonder if any of those injuries would have outright killed one of us.

  49. I have a video request for the Story of Hyena. Their origins story, mentions of Adcrocuta, Pachycrocuta, Chasmaporthetes( the hyena that made it to North America), and the Cave Hyena.

  50. some of us kind of have proof that the two groups interbred floating around inside us. nothing "died out." we're all still right here, trust me.

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