Spikins has previously researched the motives of Neanderthal health care. In an attempt to debunk the myth that Neanderthals lacked the compassion of modern Homo sapiens, for instance, she describes one individual found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq who survived for a decade or more despite a withered arm and head injuries that would have probably resulted in sight and hearing loss. His survival would almost certainly have been impossible unless other group members had provided him with food, water, and shelter—a level of altruism not typically associated with the Neanderthal mind, Spikins says. She has now charted many other examples of individuals who could not have lived through their illnesses without the help of others.
Her latest paper builds on this analysis by examining some of the specific medical skills involved in such a level of care. In the vast array of bones that archaeologists have uncovered, the fractures had often healed without significant deformities, suggesting that they had been set with a primitive splint. Many of these wounds, such as the severe head traumas and broken ribs, probably would have resulted in significant blood loss and increased risk of infection, yet the injured individuals survived long enough for the bones to heal, and their remains lack signs of severe infection—which, Spikins says, would be apparent in lumps and bumps on the bone edges.
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All of this suggests that Neanderthals had some means of dressing wounds. Spikins doesn’t know exactly what those methods were, but she points out that bandages can be made from animal parts. Some Inuit groups today, for instance, use lemming skin to dress wounds and boils, since it is said to be particularly good at adhering to human flesh. It’s feasible that Neanderthals would have also come across similar methods to stem the blood flow and to keep the wound (relatively) hygienic, Spikins says.
Neanderthals may have even been in command of some natural drugs to speed their recovery. One of the other individuals in the Shanidar Cave was found to be buried with numerous plants that are believed to have medicinal properties, including yarrow, a natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent that appears to accelerate wound healing. As a common folk cure, it is also said to reduce fevers and alleviate the symptoms of viral infections such as influenza, and to reduce flatulence and stomach cramps. Perhaps this was a sign of the health care he had received during his lifetime.
Supporting this hypothesis, Karen Hardy, of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has spent the past six years analyzing the calcified plaque left on Neanderthal teeth, which can carry tiny traces of the foods they ate. In the first of these experiments, Hardy found the chemical signatures of yarrow and chamomile, which is also thought to be an anti-inflammatory agent. Since these plants taste extremely bitter, and have little nutritional value by themselves, she hypothesizes that they were instead used for self-medication.