An article grabbed my attention last year but it took a while for me to realize why. The title, “Neanderthals Self-Medicated for Pain” examined research findings analyzing Neanderthal remains:
“You know, we’ve got a guy self-medicating either because he’s got a dental abscess, which was bad, or a nasty gastrointestinal parasite, which was also bad, either way he wasn’t a happy guy. And, here he is eating aspirin and we’re finding penicillin mould in him” – Dr. Alan Cooper
Three things strike me about the way this finding was discussed and made into headlines across major media outlets around the world.
To start, this project is inexcusably cool (so long as you’re okay with scientists poking and prodding at your dead ancestors–that is not a universally accepted position for what may be obvious reasons). But in general, bioarchaeologists and geneticists working together to paint a picture of the lives of ancient hominids? Awesome.
Additionally, Neanderthals clearly don’t deserve their name being used as an insult. They appear to have had excellent knowledge of medicinal herbs that was applied as appropriate medical treatment. The skeleton in the above quote appeared to have tracings of poplar bark, which is a painkiller similar to aspirin, as well as penicillin mold, possibly to combat an infection in his jaw. As Dr. Cooper points out, “The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin.”
Most fascinating about this article, though, isn’t what it reveals about Neanderthals, who obviously have their shit together, but rather what it reveals about the scientists and journalists discussing them.
Here the Neanderthals are, at least 40 millennia from the nearest licensed physician, but they’re being described as “self-medicating”. As in “that’s terribly irresponsible to treat yourself, Grogg. You could DIE, Grogg. Did you think about that? Maybe next time you’ll check with your HMO to find someone ACTUALLY AUTHORIZED to dispense medication. Did you even check with your pharmacist about drug interactions?”
Language betrays us all the time. Turns of phrase may reveal your history, your cultural biases, even your secreted opinions about your mother-in-law’s new hair color.
What we could read into the seemingly innocuous term “self-medicated” is that there is a right way to do medicine and a wrong way to do medicine.
The very definition of “self-medicate” is “to choose and take medicines oneself, rather than by prescription or on expert advice.” (Thanks, Google dictionary.) And the most common use of the term is a negative one—type the term into Google and the first ten suggested websites are ones concerned with people self-medicating mental illness with drugs and alcohol.
Choosing to apply the term to a group of hominids so very far removed from contemporary society and modern medicine is a bit strange, if not revealing in how we tend to think of communities that do not practice biomedicine. Even in remote hunter-gatherer communities there are medical specialists, healers who maintain and pass on herblore, shamans who apply medicinal treatments and perform spiritual ones, wise women who act as midwives and local physicians. More often, however, everyone in those communities has some amount of herbal knowledge. Is it really such a stretch to imagine knowledge of medicinal herbs in a Neanderthal community that buried its dead and made art? And whether Grogg knew how medicinal herbs worked or he obtained his medical treatment by consulting with such a healer, was it really self-medicating? Maybe it’s just medicating.
The implications for contemporary communities is clear. Due to a very particular political history, American medicine became defined solely as biomedicine, relegating every other form of healing, from midwifery to American Indian herbal knowledge, to “alternative therapies” or “complementary medicine”. Is everyone going to an acupuncturist or massage therapist “self-medicating” because it’s not “real” medicine?
Perhaps this was all an inadvertent slip of the tongue. Which became a slip of the keyboard. Over and over again, from CBS to BBC to multiple smaller sites bearing the same headline about Self-Medicating Neanderthals.
But considering that mammograms and Viagra are covered by health insurance but acupuncture and Mayan herbal treatments are not, it may be part of a larger cultural bias that continues to believe, against actual empirical data, hat biomedicine is accurate and effective and other systems of healing are not. (Note: There are too many studies suggesting the efficacy of acupuncture, and too many examples of Amazonian herbal treatments that have been made into pharmaceutical products to list them here.)
So does it matter? George Lakoff argues that language is power, that setting the terms of discussion can mean taking the upper hand in the conversation. If we want to talk about healing, about what is effective and in the best interest of the patient, then we may want to be careful to not frame our conversations in ways that constantly privilege our very fallible, constantly changing system of medicine that does some things really well and other things terribly.