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Archaeo News 

20 October 2010
The origins of compassion

Traces of the world's first known disabled, elderly human have been found in Spain. The individual is thought to have been a male who received support from his group and lived 500,000 years ago. This discovery suggests that our ancient human relatives were capable of compassion and social bonding.
     A prehistoric pelvis 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 elderly fellow 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.
     Alejandro Bonmati, a researcher at Complutense University of Madrid and the Carlos III Institute of Health, and his colleagues unearthed the lower back and pelvis for the aged individual at a site called Sima de los Huesos in Spain. The male's remains were found among some 6,000 other fossils at the site, which was once likely home to numerous humans from the now-extinct species.
     Analysis of the fossils indicates the male Homo heidelbergensis was over age 45 and suffered from a spinal deformity that would have caused him a lot of pain and forced him to stoop over. It's not clear how much older than 45 he was. The researcher, however, are certain that he was elderly based on his remains. "This individual may not have been an active hunter and was impaired to carry heavy loads, thus an important source of his food would depend on other members of the group, which would mean sharing," Bonmati said.
     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. Homo heidelbergensis had a large brain and certain anatomy, such as a highly developed inner ear, Bonmati explained. These features suggest this species had some form of spoken language that would have helped to bond individuals together.
     The findings come on the heels of yet another new study: Drs. Penny Spikins, Andy Needham and Holly Rutherford from the York University (England) Department of Archaeology have used archaeological evidence to develop a four-stage model for the origins of compassionate behavior in humans. They hypothesize the earliest stage to have begun six million years ago with our primate ancestors. Stage 2 occurs approximately 1.8 million years ago with the appearance of Homo erectus. Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals represent stage 3.
     There is evedence that sick and injured individuals who could not have otherwise survived were cared for by the community. Remains have been found of a Neanderthal child who lived five or six years with a severe brain abnormality. Another individual with major deformities of the limbs, who was perhaps also blind, survived for twenty years. Stage four represents modern humans whose compassion has been known to extend to animals and who have developed abstract concepts of ethical behavior.
     The reserach on ethical behavior is being extended to the arena of the neurosciences and advanced imaging techniques, according to Dr. Spikins. She notes, "Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion. It binds us together and can inspire us but it is also fragile and elusive. This apparent fragility makes addressing the evidence for the development of compassion in our most ancient ancestors a unique challenge, yet the archaeological record has an important story to tell about the prehistory of compassion," she said. "We have traditionally paid a lot of attention to how early humans thought about each other, but it may well be time to pay rather more attention to whether or not they 'cared'."
     The work of the team is being published in a book titled 'The Prehistory of Compassion.' Proceeds will go to the charity World Vision.

Edited from University of York, Telegraph.co.uk, The Scotsman (5 October 2010), AFP, Yahoo! News (11 Oxtober 2010), Discovery News (12 October 2010)

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