A new study of Neanderthals, the predecessors of modern humans, argues that they were far from the bunch of savage and brutal ape-like folks as portrayed in popular culture.

Neanderthals went extinct some 40,000 years ago, but before that, they were compassionate and caring individuals, archaeologists from the University of York, England, suggested after witnessing signs of healing and healthcare on the remains of some members of the species.

“Neanderthals didn't think in terms of whether others might repay their efforts, they just responded to their feelings about seeing their loved ones suffering" from an injury or illness, Dr. Penny Spikins, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Spikins and colleagues took a close look at Neanderthal fossil injuries and found in some cases, the condition occurred way before an individual’s death and would have required regular care in the form of continuous monitoring, massage, fever and hygiene management. In such scenarios, without added support from somebody else (like a fellow member of the Neanderthal group), they would not have survived as long as they actually did.

For instance, the group found the fossil of a Neanderthal who suffered from a number of ailments including a degenerative disease of spine and shoulders. Theoretically, a condition like this should have taken away all his strength and restricted his ability to participate in a group. But, the man remained active even during the time leading up to his death as his remains were found carefully buried.

Even Shanidar 1, another Neanderthal specimen found in Iraq, bore signs of injuries and deformities that look severe enough to result in an early death. However, in this case too, there were signs of gradual healing and the specimen survived to an advanced age, something that suggests fellow Neanderthals must have helped him somehow.

"We argue that the social significance of the broader pattern of healthcare has been overlooked and interpretations of a limited or calculated response to healthcare have been influenced by preconceptions of Neanderthals as being 'different' and even brutish,” Spikins added. “However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture” and suggests Neanderthal were not very different from modern humans, after all.

The similarity could also mean the compassionate and knowledgeable response to critical injuries we humans show could be something we acquired as part of an evolutionary process over time, rather than a unique quality. A recent study also found Homo neanderthalensis produced cave art at least 20,000 years before modern humans got to it.

The work on the fossils was backed by the John Templeton Foundation and is published in the journal World Archaeology.