Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Evidence of Human Compassion: 500,000 Years Ago

"Earliest Traces of a Disabled, Aged Human Found"
Jennifer Viegas, Archaeology News, Discovery News (October 12, 2010)

"A prehistoric pelvis, nicknamed 'Elvis,' and other fossilized bones are what's left of the world's first known elderly human with clear signs of aging and impairment, according to a paper in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The remains, which date back to 500,000 years ago, also represent the earliest post-cranial evidence for an aged individual in the human fossil record.

"The elderly fellow, who lived in Spain, was a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis, a type of ancient human believed by some to be exclusive to Europe and ancestral only to Neanderthals...."

Neanderthals and the Family Tree

That "ancestral only to Neanderthals" makes it sound like the Homo heidelbergensis folks don't have all that much to do with us - at least as far as being our ancestors is concerned. Maybe so, but the last I heard there's evidence from DNA that quite a few folks living today have Neanderthals in our family tree. Particularly those of us whose more recent ancestors come from Europe. (May 7, 2010)

The man whose pelvis and lower back bones were found was at least 45 when he died, and had a spinal deformity that would have been quite painful. Also forced him into a stooped posture and limited his ability to hunt and carry heavy loads.

Odds are, according to the article, he used a cane to get around.

With his physical limitations, he probably depended on others for quite a bit of his food. He could have made a contribution to his group, though.

"...As a senior, the individual would have had expertise in finding food and more, the researchers suspected, so he must have been a valuable contributor to his group. As a result, the male may also provide some of the world's first evidence for compassion and cooperation among early humans.

" 'We wouldn't say that he was a burden to his group, but rather that this was a greatly socialized group with solidarity bonds between individuals,' [lead author Alejandro] Bonmati said.

"Homo heidelbergensis had a large brain and certain anatomy, such as a highly developed inner ear, he explained. These features suggest this species had some form of spoken language that would have helped to bond individuals together...."

Taking Care of Others: That's Nice

So far, so good. We're collecting more evidence about folks who lived before we started writing things down, and learning a little about how they lived. Looks like in at least some cases, they were able and willing to take care of their elders.

And, sometimes, handicapped youngsters:

"...The findings come on the heels of yet another new study, published in the journal Time and Mind, which describes the discovered remains of a Neanderthal child with a congenital brain abnormality who was not abandoned, but instead lived until the about age five or six.

"The paper mentions yet another Neanderthal individual who would have required care: someone with a withered arm, deformed feet and blindness in one eye who lived to about age 20.

"Lead author Penny Spikins, a University of York archaeologist, said all provide evidence for compassion among early humans.

" 'Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion. It binds us together and can inspire us, but it is also fragile and elusive,' she said...."

Compassion: Taking Look Around

Whoops. Clarification time. Compassion is important. And has anybody noticed that it's the Neanderthals and their kin who get mentioned as showing compassion in this article? The Lemming is getting off-topic.

Like the Lemming said, compassion is important, and it may very well be a "fundamental human emotion." On the other hand, the Lemming can't help but remember examples of 'compassion' of this sort that aren't even in the primate families.

For example: "...Sick or crippled lions, unable to kill for themselves, can subsist for months by joining others on their kills...." ("The Serengeti lion: a study of predator-prey relations," George B. Schaller, University of Chicago Press (1976), p. 358, via Google Books)

The Lemming could say that compassion is a fundamental human and feline emotion. Or carry speculation even further. But that's yet another topic.

Related posts:More related posts:

2 comments:

Brigid said...

Or the dog that adopted two orphan lion cubs. Though in that case it may have been overwhelming maternal instinct, as she was also caring for her own litter of pups at the time.

Brian Gill said...

Brigid,

Good example.

Although dogs are apparently wolves that our ancestors re-engineered - so that's arguably 'human compassion,' once removed.

Still, good example.

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