Love in the Time of the Neanderthals
Alaina PerdonClass of 2022 • Forked River, New Jersey
- Food Recovery Network
- Friends of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge
Her essay in the Washington College Review draws upon lessons learned during an introductory class in environmental anthropology and her own research into medicinal practices of the Neanderthals—the species that first emerged during the Pleistocene Epoch about 2.6 million years ago. Anthropologists are beginning to understand that our early human ancestors were not simple brutes, but had appreciation for art and language, developed new tools and technologies that helped them survive harsh environmental conditions, and offered rudimentary medical care to the sick and injured.
“The best evidence of love exists in displays of compassion, the practice of caring for one another out of pure altruism, which shows emotional bonds and an ability to recognize the intrinsic value of another’s life,” Alaina writes. “This can be seen in Neanderthals’ healthcare practices, as they administered care to ill, injured, and elderly members of their groups indiscriminately, regardless of the cost to the greater society.… This emotional motivation drove the species to develop more complex methodologies, and certainly saved the species from early extinction by allowing them to surpass the limitations of their ecosystem.”
She recounts evidence of the use of medicinal plants for disinfecting wounds and respiratory illnesses, limb amputation after trauma, assisted childbirth, and accelerated healing patterns that indicate patients were carefully tended.
“Continued attempts at healing led Neanderthals to gain an aptitude for medical botany and further capitalize on the elements of their landscape,” Alaina writes.
Those who couldn’t hunt or forage were provided for. The lesson here, she says, is that taking care of one another allowed the species to advance and to thrive.
“Each individual holds some responsibility for upholding the good of the species,” she concludes. “Caring for one another, regardless of how those we care for can return the favor or otherwise benefit our society, ultimately advances humanity. Clearly, Neanderthals loved one another, and we should emulate their compassion to better our own society.”
Since that first environmental anthropology class, Alaina has been committed to learning how humans fit into ecosystems. Her work with the Eastern Shore Food Lab has allowed her to expand upon that idea, as she explores the intersections of food and culture and the natural environment.
“What you eat can say so much about you, the land, and the human experience,” Alaina notes. “Now I go to a restaurant and think, “What do these spices say about colonization of West Indies?”
Alaina hopes that she can help others learn to love where they live, and to appreciate that connection between environment and society.
“What I really want to do is inspire people to find their place in the ecosystem. I’m not sure exactly what the future holds for me, but I always want to be teaching.”
Alaina's Four-Year Plan
Year 1Favorite Class ENV 294: Environmental Communication
“This second-semester class with Prof. Jill Bible is when my career goals shifted from being an environmental scientist to making science accessible to other people. We talked about how environmental activism and writing can evoke real change for the environment.”
Year 2Lasting Impressions ENV/ANT 107: Introduction to Environmental Anthropology
"This is the class that first introduced me to anthropology and the idea that ancient peoples can inspire sustainability today. That’s something I’m still carrying with me now. It also inspired my essay about the medicinal practices of Neanderthals, published in the Washington College Review.”
Year 3Learning Through the Pandemic Maintaining Social Connections
“I’m not gonna lie: The burnout is real. What’s been helpful is that my professors have been incredibly understanding of the challenges of juggling Zoom classes and working from home. And the clubs and organizations I’m associated with have been great about promoting community engagement, even from afar.”
Year 4Looking Forward To The Senior Capstone Experience
“While I’m looking forward to returning to campus for classes next fall, I’m really excited to start working on my thesis. This is an opportunity to take a year-long deep dive into something I care about—specifically how the human element and the environment are connected.”