The Japan Times
October 18, 2001
By VIRGINIA FENTON

Healthcare, hominid style

PARIS (AP) Neanderthals might not have been as savage as we think. A 200,000-year-old jawbone discovered in France suggests that the primitive hominids took care of each other, in this case feeding a toothless peer, an international team of experts said last week.

A damaged jawbone, unearthed last year in southern France, shows that its owner survived without teeth for up to several years — impossible without a helping hand from his or her peers, said Canadian paleontologist Serge Lebel.

Lebel directed an international team of experts who discovered the fossil in July 2000. Also on the team was Neanderthal specialist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., and colleagues from Germany, Portugal and France.

"This individual must have been quite weak and needed preparation of his or her food, and the social group probably took care of him or her," Lebel said at a news conference.

"We mustn't dehumanize these beings. They show an entirely human kind of behavior," added Lebel, of the University of Quebec in Montreal.

Others in the group may have gone as far as chewing the food for their sick peer, as well as cutting and cooking it, he said.

The discovery may push back estimates of the beginning of social care by 150,000 years, Lebel said. A similar infection that caused a hominid to lose his teeth had previously been found only in fossils dating back 50,000 years, he said.

The team's findings were published in the Sept. 25 issue of the American periodical Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

However, University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz was skeptical.

The discovery is "interesting, but there might be a larger story here," he said.

"You can eat a lot without your teeth. There is no reason to think the individual couldn't have been chewing soft food — snails, mollusks, even worms.

"We like to think of Neanderthals as rough-and-tumble, always going after the mammoth," Schwartz said, "but it seems likely that they exploited whatever was around them."

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team wrote that hominids at the time had evolved to the level where they were able "to maintain debilitated individuals and to provide the motivation to do so."

Evidence of the controlled use of fire, and cutting tools that were unearthed around the fossil, also show a level of domestic organization previously thought to have started much later, Lebel said.

The fossil was found with two teeth from other individuals.

The jaw was discovered between the soil and a large slab of rock in a cave at Bau l'Aubesier in the Vaucluse region, where Lebel has been running summer digs since 1987.

"It is very rare to find a human fossil from this period — when you have the good luck to do so, you contribute a bit more to the understanding of the human family tree," Lebel said.

NEANDERTHAL HEALTH SERVICE — Canadian paleontologist Serge Lebel shows an ancient jawbone that suggests a social care system in homonids 200,000 years ago. AP PHOTO