New Historian

History News of the Week – Neanderthals Showed Compassion

The biggest history news stories of the last seven days, including new research which points to Neanderthals providing social support for their injured and debilitated, a study which suggests squirrel trade could have brought leprosy to England, and claims that modern society hasn’t made humans less violent.

Neanderthals Were Compassionate, New Evidence Suggests

Around 50,000 years ago, an older Neanderthal who had suffered multiple debilitating injuries and became deaf likely relied on others to avoid prey and survive into his forties, new analysis suggests.

“More than his loss of a forearm, bad limp and other injuries, his deafness would have made him easy prey for the ubiquitous carnivores in his environment and dependent on other members of his social group for survival,” said Erik Trinkaus, study co-author and professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Trinkaus and colleagues’ research has been published in the online open access journal PLOS ONE.

Known as Shanidar 1, the Neanderthal’s remains were discovered in 1957 at the Shanida Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan by Ralph Solecki, an American archaeologist.

Previous studies of Shanidar 1’s remains had found evidence of multiple injuries, including a serious blow to the side of the face, fractures and the eventual amputation of the right arm at the elbow. It was also noted that he had suffered a systematic degenerative condition.

In the latest analysis, Trinkaus and Sébastien Villotte of the French National Centre for Scientific Research confirm that bony growths in Shanidar 1’s ear canals would have produced profound hearing loss.

Surviving in the hostile Pleistocene environment would have been highly challenging, even without hearing loss. As with other Neanderthals who have been found to have survived with serious injuries or disabilities, the authors suggest Shanidar 1 most likely required significant social support to reach old age.

“The debilities of Shanidar 1, and especially his hearing loss, thereby reinforce the basic humanity of these much maligned archaic humans, the Neandertals,” said Trinkaus.

Squirrels Spread Leprosy to England

The prevalence of leprosy in the south-east of England during the medieval period could be explained by squirrel fur trade with Scandinavia, according to new research.

Genetic analysis of a pre-Norman woman’s skull, unearthed from a garden in Suffolk, has added to growing evidence that East Anglia was the epicentre of a leprosy epidemic that spread through medieval England. New research, published in The Journal of Medical Microbiology, suggests the disease reached England through either contact with Scandinavia via Anglo-Saxon movement, or through the sustained trade in squirrel fur.

Radiocarbon dating by researchers from the University of Cambridge confirmed that the woman, dubbed the “The Lady of Hoxne,” lived sometime between 885-1015 CE. Their analysis of the skull also detected traces of Mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria which cause leprosy. Squirrels are a known carrier of these bacteria.

The disfiguring effects of leprosy were clear on the woman’s skull, providing evidence that she would have suffered extensive facial lesions and possibly nerve damage to her extremities. She was infected with the same strain of the disease that has been found in other remains in East Anglia.

Sarah Inskip, Research Associate at St John’s College, Cambridge, and lead author of the paper, said: “This new evidence coupled with the prevalence of leper hospitals in East Anglia from the eleventh century onward adds weight to the idea that the disease was endemic in this region earlier than in other parts of the country.

“It is possible that apparent clustering of leprosy cases in the East Anglia region could be attributed to chance – perhaps more medieval human remains have simply been uncovered in the region and the discoveries have been better conserved by a soil type containing high levels of bone-preserving chalk. However, the same conditions are also found in areas such as Hampshire and Dorset, where many early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have been excavated, but no cases of leprosy have yet been reported.”

Significantly, the same strain of leprosy that seems to have been prevalent in East Anglia has also been identified in medieval remains in Sweden and Denmark. This has led the authors to claim that North Sea trade links could have brought the disease to England.

“It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly-prized squirrel pelt and meat which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive. Strong trade connections with Denmark and Sweden were in full flow in the medieval period, with Kings Lynn and Yarmouth becoming significant ports for fur imports,” added Dr Inskip.

Although leprosy has not been found in humans on the British Isles for over two centuries, a recent study has detected the infection in red squirrels on Brownsea Island in Dorset. Sequencing of the M.leprae strain that affects the squirrels found it to be closely related to that detected in the woman from Hoxne.

“Research has already established that leprosy can be passed from armadillos to humans, so that it may also come from squirrels is an interesting idea,” said Inskip. “It is questionable how long the bacteria could have survived on fur or meat, but it’s notable that squirrels were also sometimes kept as pets.”

“Perhaps it’s the movement of people and prolonged connection between East Anglia and Scandinavia that’s important to our understanding of the history of leprosy in the UK, but further research refuting or confirming the role of the fur trade could be highly enlightening and exciting”.

Modern Society hasn’t Made Mankind less Violent

Two anthropologists claim that people living in ‘modern-day nations’ are not less violent than their ancestors or people currently living in smaller hunter-gathering and horticultural societies. The research also claims that living in ‘a large, organised’ society increases the likelihood of surviving a war, pointing out that although ‘modern’ societies may have a larger number of soldiers or combatants who die in a war, they represent a smaller percent of the total population.

Florida State University Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology Dean Falk and Charles Hildebolt, a professor from the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, make their claims in the journal Current Anthropology.

“Rather than being more violent, people who live in small-scale societies are more vulnerable to a significant portion of their community being killed in warfare than those living in states because, as the old saying goes, ‘there is safety in numbers,'” Falk said in a press release.

“We recognise, of course, that people living in all types of societies have the potential not only for violence — but also for peace.”

Falk and Hildebot have found that war deaths for both small-scale and more modern state societies escalate with increasing population sizes. They attribute this, at least partly, to developments in weapons and military strategy.

The authors claim their study challenges the idea that as nations and modern societies develop, there is a reduction in violence.

Falk and Hildebolt analysed data on population sizes and death from intergroup conflicts in 11 chimpanzee communities, 24 human non-states, 19 countries that fought in World War I and 22 countries that fought in World War II.

It was discovered that on the whole the chimpanzees were less violent than humans, pointing to humans having more severe forms of warfare. It was also found that, as with humans, the annual average percentage of deaths among chimpanzees declined as their populations increased.

Featured image: The skull of a Neanderthal known as Shanidar 1 shows signs of a blow to the head received at an early age. Credit: Erik Trinkaus