Fossil Human Emotions
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

Fossil Human Emotions

The excavations of Shanidar Cave, Iraq, during the 1950s unearthed more than simply nine skeletons of Neanderthal man. Ever since their discovery in the Neander Valley of Germany a hundred years earlier, Neanderthal man had been considered a brutish figure, slow, dull, and insensitive. Study of the remains of the people of Shanidar Cave revealed that, by the middle of the Paleolithic Age 60,000 years ago, human beings were capable of emotions unexpected of the savage cave—man. These included compassion, kindness, and love as well as fear and hostility.

The first skeleton, which was exhumed in 1951, told the story of a man who was so severely disabled that he had to rely on his fellow humans to attend to all of his physical needs. His skull, the first of the remains to be exposed during the excavations, resembled a huge broken egg. When the rest of the skeleton was uncovered, it was apparent that the man had been killed on the spot by a rockfall. His bones had been broken and crushed as a large number of rocks fell on him. His body had toppled backward down the slope, while a huge boulder severed his head from his body. All this happened very quickly — within seconds.

A laboratory examination of the skeleton showed him to have been about forty years of age when he died, quite old for a Neanderthal. His had been a hard life. His right arm was withered and had been useless from birth, and excessive bone scar tissue on the left side of his face showed him to be blind in the left eye.

Born disabled in a relentless world, he was certainly unable to forage or fend for himself. It must be assumed that his companions provided for his needs, for he certainly could not have lived long without the care of other Neanderthals. Because he wasn't exposed to the rigors and dangers of the hunt, he probably outlived most of the people who attended to him.

His job was very likely to make himself useful around the hearth. His well—worn front teeth suggest that, with a useless right arm, he used them for holding objects. He may have spent much time chewing animal hides to soften them as he tended the fire. Confined to the cold, damp recesses of the cave, he had developed a bad case of progressive arthritis, which had crippled him so severely that he was scarcely able to walk.

His withered arm had been amputated above the elbow early in life, and the healed bone indicated that he had survived the operation. Possibly the useless arm was believed to be evil and if it was severed a good arm might grow in its place. The damaged bone suggests that the shaman had amputated his arm with a blow from a stone ax. His life finally came to an end when an earthquake caused part of the rock ceiling to collapse on his helpless body. A heap of stones and nearby remains of food show that he had been respected and honored by his people.

Another Neanderthal skeleton unearthed in the excavation was from an earlier occupation during the Mid—Paleolithic Age. It was a male who had also been killed when part of the cave ceiling fell on him. His remains clearly reflected the hard life these humans endured. The emotion that led to his death was hostility, probably resulting from fear and rivalry.

His skeleton lay only a few feet from the remains of a fire, on the exact spot where he had been killed by a rockfall. Under laboratory examination one of his ribs showed a strange rectangular cut. Later x—rays of the rib revealed that the cut had been made by an implement with a tapered edge. Since no animal attack or accident could have produced so precise a wound, it could only have been the result of mortal combat with another human who used a weapon designed for destruction. The wound had been healing for about a week when the man was killed.

The man was one of several who lived in the cave during the climax of the Paleolithic Age. For unknown reasons he had engaged in combat with a neighbor and in the fight had received a nonfatal spear wound. It is reasonable to assume that he was victorious and destroyed his enemy, or he certainly would have been neither free nor able to walk away. Returning to the cave weak and bleeding from the wound in his side, he lay down near the fire. There he remained for about a week while his wound slowly healed. Suddenly alerted when an earthquake struck, he managed to get into a crouching position just as the rock ceiling fell on his helpless body.

A third skeleton of a Neanderthal man revealed quite different emotions: love, respect, and goodwill. His remains were found deep within the recesses of the cave where he had been buried ceremoniously by his companions, doubtless his extended family. Studies of the encasing soil showed it to contain pollen from eight different species of brightly colored flowers. No accident of nature could have caused the presence of such a concentrated botanical mixture so deep within the cave. A number of people must have roamed the mountainside collecting an assortment of flowers, which they wove into the branches of a shrub. This blossom—bedecked wreath was then placed on the body of the deceased.

A sense of the value of life is reflected not only in the death rites of the Neanderthal but also in their treatment of the aged and handicapped. Funerals may declare belief in a quality of human life that continues after death. But unselfishly providing care for those who have outlived their usefulness is an even greater tribute to the humanity of the Neanderthal.