Neanderthals were not all strapping, healthy beings like we have been led to believe, a leading scientist has said. Instead many of our prehistoric ancestors were ill and disabled, looking like they had been "in the wars".


Dr Penny Spikins, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of York, said the notion of a caveman past where everyone was strong and healthy is “kind of worrying”.

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Speaking that the British Science Festival in Coventry and Warwickshire, she explained: “We are not very good at vulnerability, and we are vulnerable to being lonely, we’re physically vulnerable. Nobody likes thinking about death and we have this image of ourselves as competitive and individualistic which is often unhelpful and unhealthy. Then we apply that back on to the past and then that justifies the present again and that’s slightly worrying.”

She added: “But when you think, ‘well, actually, throughout our evolutionary history we’ve been interdependent and everyone has periods of vulnerability’, maybe that might help you find it easier to handle being vulnerable, something just part of being human — not a fault.

Prof Spikins said that on the one hand Neanderthals were healthy because they walked around a lot, but there was also a very high injury rate and a lot of famines. “So almost every skeleton has got signs of a serious injury or illness just because of the lifestyles they are living. They’re not suffering from the sedentary lifestyles that we are but they are dealing with a difficult life as well,” said Prof Spikins.

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She also said that museums should look at the way they portray Neanderthals, suggesting that many would look injured and scarred. Prof Spikins said: “And that’s not what we see in reconstructions, they’d all look like they had been in the wars, they would be at least 50 per cent children, and they’re not in there, some elderly people.

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Asked whether museums have a responsibility to reflect society, she added: “In a way there is an issue with disability, we’re not comfortable with disability and yet our past is one in which a lot of people have what we would not see as a disability, and yet we’re not comfortable with that.”

Presenting at the British Science Festival, Prof Spikins suggested that healthcare and a caring response to vulnerability has had a more significant impact our evolution than we thought. Recent skeletal evidence from Neanderthals – a now extinct, ancient human species - shows that medical care for the ill and injured happened much earlier than previous studies indicated.

It also appeared to be more extensive and far more significant than we realised, suggesting it had a high social value. Of the 50 Neanderthal skeletons that exist, 17 of them showed evidence they had been cared for.


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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.