Neanderthals 'had first social services'

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The Independent Online

Life may have been nasty, brutish and short for the Neanderthals but new evidence shows that these primitive humans took great care of the less fortunate in their society.

Scientists have discovered a fossilised lower jawbone from an early Neanderthal who lived for many years despite having no teeth. The researchers believe this could only have been possible if the individual was fed by others.

Serge Lebel, of the University of Quebec in Montreal, and Erik Trinkaus, of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, have dated the bone to about 175,000 years ago, which is more than 100,000 years older than the previous evidence for social care among the Neanderthals.

"We have clear evidence that he or she lived for months or years without any teeth before dying. We think the social group was looking after this individual," said Dr Lebel, who found the lower jawbone last summer in a cave in Bau de l'Aubesier near Vaucluse in the south of France. "This guy was not living alone. There was lots of other material in the cave showing that he lived in a group who helped to process his food," Dr Lebel said.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pushed back the date at which it was thought that early humans took care of their sick, Professor Trinkaus said.

Others in the group probably chewed food for the owner of the jawbone, who suffered a serious abscess that made chewing difficult and painful, he said. "And we're talking about food that at that time needed pretty extensive processing," the professor added.