About 35,000 years ago, a child, probably a boy, who belonged to a hunter-gatherer group settled somewhere in northern Israel, was playing in the uncontaminated nature, fell and seriously hurt his foot. We will never know for sure if this is exactly what happened to the young person whose remains were uncovered at the Manot Cave in western Galilee. However, what the anthropologists found examining his foot bones sheds light on an extraordinary aspect of the life of a community that dates back to such a distant past.
As it is explained in a paper recently published in the Journal of Human Evolution, other individuals must have taken care of the injured child, allowing him not only to survive but even to recover quite well from the fracture, and to die a long time later for unrelated causes.
Such a testimony of the solidarity and mutual support that existed among humans who lived over 20,000 years before the agricultural revolution began is one of the most remarkable aspects of what has emerged from the foot excavated at Manot Cave, Dr. Hila May from the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology, Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research at the Tel Aviv University who led the study told The Jerusalem Post.
“We found the bones during several seasons of excavation at the Manot Cave. We came to the conclusion that they belonged to the same individual both because they were found in the same layer in proximity of each other and because, after we cleaned them, we realized that they perfectly matched,” May explained.
The scientists were able to ascertain that the young person had suffered from a fracture in his second metatarsal, but the fracture managed to heal and the individual died only a long time later.
“Foot injuries cause a lot of suffering since one cannot walk properly,” May pointed out, adding that the type of injury suffered from the prehistoric person is still common today, especially among athletes and children who procure it by simply falling. She added that even now it requires surgery or at least several weeks wearing a cast before the patient can go back to normal activity.
“This means that the community that this individual was part of supported him while he could not walk and gave him food. Because the fracture healed so well, we can even speculate that they managed to find a way to immobilize the foot for some time, the same way today someone would wear a cast,” May told the Post.
Even though they think that the person was a male, the scientists were not able to establish it for sure, since this is information is very hard to determine by just looking at foot bones and they were not able to extract the DNA, as it is the standard in this kind of cases.
“In Israel DNA gets destroyed very fast because of the hot climate. Moreover, extracting DNA from a foot bone it’s challenging, contrary to what happens with parts of the skeletons where there is more compact bone. Finding DNA from so long ago it’s in general extremely rare. We were not able to find DNA traces in any of the remains uncovered in Manot,” May explained.
They did however manage to estimate that the individual was probably between 15 and 20 years old.
“We know that around 15,000 years ago the average life expectancy for hunter-gatherers was about 30 years. Earlier on it might have been something similar or even shorter,” the evolutionary anthropologist said.
The Manot Cave discovery is not the first case in the world showing that our ancestors started to take care of the most vulnerable among them very early on, but it is still significant because very little remains known about these hunter-gatherer groups, and especially about their social behavior.
“We know they lived in small groups, composed by maybe a few dozen individuals, moving around according to food availability. Generally, we understand that men went hunting while women took care of gathering food and of the children,” the scholar further said.
About the young person’s remains revealed in Manot, the researchers even speculate that the body was placed there on purpose to be buried, potentially showing compassion not only for the weak, but also for the dead.
“The presence of several artifacts such as flint tools and shells brought from somewhere else may suggest that we are in the presence of an organized burial. However, we cannot prove it,” May pointed out.
When the archaeologists first came across the bones, excavating the site between 2014 and 2017, their first goal was to determine whether they belonged to a Homo Sapiens, or to a Neanderthal.
“We knew that in Israel at that time we had both. According to the shape and the size of the bone, we could establish that it belonged to a Homo Sapiens. However, we also found some Neanderthal traits,” the researcher told the Post.
Asked whether this could mean that mixed Sapiens-Neanderthal communities existed, she responded affirmatively.
“We don’t know what was the pattern of their interaction, if females went to Neanderthal groups or maybe the opposite, but we know that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals, contrary to what was believed for many years,” May stated. “The fact that we see Neanderthal characteristics in the remains we found in the Manot Cave means they were mating, they had kids together, even though they looked morphologically different.”
“We know that all homo sapiens who left Africa about 65,000 years ago had some Neandertal genes. It raises a very interesting question on how we define species,” May concluded.
Our ancestors, or at least some of them, cared for each other and were able to overcome physical and even genetic differences. Do we, their descendants living in the 21°-century, still have something to learn from them?