Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Nurturing Neandertals Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Mark Rose

[image] The owner of this jawbone had to rely on fellow early Neandertals for help in preparing his or her food. (Erik Trinkaus/Serge Lebel) [LARGER IMAGE]

A pathological human jaw from Bau de l'Aubesier, a rock-shelter in southeastern France, shows that early Neandertals cared for those who were incapacitated. Evidence for Neandertal care-giving is known from other sites, but this case is unprecedented in terms of the degree of impairment and its early date, 150,000 years before other examples. Designated Aubesier 11, the jaw is described by site director Serge Lebel of Université de Québec à Montréal and anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Based on thermoluminescence dates and faunal studies, the level in which it was found dates from 175,000 to 200,000 years ago, perhaps earlier.

Other than the worn root tips of the canine and third premolar, few, if any, of the teeth were in place when the individual died. The rot and reabsorption of bone indicate serious infection, likely resulting from extreme wear of the teeth rather than dental disease. The individual (whether male or female is unknown) lived for a matter of months unable to chew food without considerable pain.

"This is the oldest example of someone surviving for some period of time without an effective set of chompers," says Trinkaus. "If their social organization was based on small family units, loss of individual members could have catastrophic consequences and had to be averted," notes Lebel. "Meat was an important dietary factor, and we must envisage a preparation and selection of soft food, like marrow, by other group members."

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America