Back in 2011 I visited my best friend who was living in Virginia at the time. We went to Washington D.C. and I was thrilled to see that the Natural History Museum had a featured exhibit on human evolution. I ended up coming across something that stuck with me for a long time.
The hallways were filled with fascinating displays and I bounded from one glass case to the next. There were weapons and recreations of cave paintings. Colorful maps of how we spread across the Earth lined the walls.
Off-set in one of the smaller rooms was a modest yet profound gallery. It held mostly fragments of bone. It was a room dedicated to our ancestors who died by harsh means. It was meant to serve as a reminder that most of our history was a very real struggle between life and death.
There was the small fossilized foot of a toddler with crocodile teeth marks torn all the way through. Grooves made by jaguar teeth decorate the skull of an adolescent. But the one I remember the most was the skull and arm bones of an adult male.
Walking up to his display case my first assumption was that he died from the large dent left in his skull, but the huge difference in the size between his right and left arm raised my curiosity.
As it turns out this individual suffered a blow to his head early in his life that not only crushed in part of his skull and left eye socket but it had also damaged the part of the brain that we now know controls the right side of the body. His right arm bone was far more slender and weaker than his apparently normal left arm.
What was so remarkable about his massive injuries was that based on the healing of the bones scientists were able to determine that this individual lived to be in his late thirties to early forties - which was about the average life expectancy.
How on earth could a man crippled physically - as well as possibly mentally and emotionally - survive so many years beyond the initial injury? What was even more astonishing was that he was not even a modern human. He was a Neanderthal.
Hundreds of thousands of years before modern medicine and what we would consider society, healthy males were needed to hunt. He, more than likely, would not have been able to participate in such rough and demanding physical activity. He would have been a burden. Yet his age and the healing of his bones tell a unexpectedly beautiful story: He was looked after.
He would never have been able to survive on his own after sustaining such a traumatic injury. But there were those who would not leave him behind. He was feed, clothed, and given shelter. He remained with his tribe and whatever burden he may have been, he was not abandoned.
We don't often think of Neanderthals in this way. They are presented to us as a brutish, less intelligent versions of ourselves. They faded away and so we assumed dominance. But slowly it is beginning to emerge that this lost species had achieved a surprising amount of culture. The oldest known cave paintings and burial sites are thought to be Neanderthal. And when you are looking at the bones of a Neanderthal who could never have survived alone, it is impossible to see them without a culture. The level of compassion for this man must have been amazing.
It makes you wonder how he even got hurt in the first place. Who was the one who found him or was with him when it happened? How did they even treat his wounds at the time? Today we can see how the injury affected him physically but we can never know the full extent of the damage. Did the blow to his head hinder his eyesight? Did it affect his memory? Did he suffer from chronic headaches? Did it change his personality in some way? Did those who looked after him feel like they lost a part of him or were they relived that they still had him around? How did he compensate for the lack of development on the right side of his body? How did he cope with knowing he would never be the same again?
Other visitors to the museum move past me, eager to see the next exhibit. I stand still looking down at his skull with my fingers pressed against the glass. It is a miracle that someone even found his remains. What are the odds that I'd be standing over a man that died so long ago and be able to know a little bit about his life? I have so many questions that I will never know the answers to. Sometimes all you can do is just let yourself feel. I am so moved by the life of this man and what he must have gone through. I am grateful for this touching window into the past and this profound example of humanity. My eyes tear up and I linger by his bones. For a moment the distance between our lives seems so small. The museum buzzes with movement around me but I remain still. I share a moment of silence with this survivor.