I'd like to think it was mothers who inspired compassion in our ancient ancestors. That is not something that paleopathologists have been able to determine, but they can tell from the archaeological record which societies demonstrated this virtue. To quote Spikins et al., "The first steps in a prehistoric archaeology of compassion must necessarily be tentative. New archaeological evidence for care of archaic humans and for altruism in great apes plus a greater understanding of how emotions 'work' has allowed us to begin to bring what were once intangible concepts of the 'feelings' of ancient humans into the area of scientific explanation."
"From a simple motivation to provide food for an incapacitated individual in early humans, compassion became a reason for living, or for dying, and a structural fundamental to human social life."~P. A. Spikins, H. E. Rutherford, A. P. Needham, The Prehistory of Compassion
The bones tell them which members were born with disabilities, but lived to mature into adults who were physically incapable of contributing to the group's (and their own) sustenance. The bones tell them that a man so injured that he could no longer participate in the hunts was kept alive for years by eating the meat that others brought back. And the artifacts suggest that a woman who had a stroke was still an integral member of the society that fed and cared for her.
The best evidence for the ancient roots of the most human of emotions - compassion - has been unearthed at the following sites:
- Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic) an engraved ivory plaque and clay head (1st image) show the facial deformity and probable paralysis that is indicated in a skeleton buried nearby, possibly the earliest evidence of a portrait, and a sign that the individual remained important to the group. Other Upper Palaeolithic skeletons were buried with great numbers of beads or other personal objects, which may show that survivors felt the individual needed a special level of comfort between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago.
- La Ferrassie (France) A skeleton excavated at this Neanderthal site (2nd image) shows that the individual had broken a femur, a particularly debilitating injury given the force it would have required and the blood loss it may have caused. It would have required 6-8 weeks to heal. It did so with no deformity and the person lived to a relatively advanced age, highly evocative of a society with the ability and desire to care long-term for its members between 35,000 and 45,000 years ago.
- Shanidar (Iraq) The bones of the Neanderthal "Old Man of Shanidar" (5th image) showed that he had suffered multiple fractures, particularly on the right side of his body, as an adolescent. His right upper arm was completely withered, and he had lost the forearm before death. He had degenerative deformities in both legs, which would likely have caused a painful limp. In addition, he had received a crushing blow to the head, which may have caused blindness and even brain damage. Not only did the man survive his early injuries, he lived for another 2 or 3 dozen years, with his comparative old age suggesting a commitment by the whole group to his care as much as 45,000 years ago.
- Koobi Fora (Kenya) A female Homo ergaster skeleton known as KNM-ER 1808 (4th image) exhibits the reduced density and growths characteristic of hypervitaminosis A, a disease caused by ingesting too much vitamin A (perhaps from liver). The woman would have experienced abdominal pain, nausea, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, lethargy, loss of muscular coordination, and impaired consciousness. The pathology only shows up in the skeleton in the advanced stages of the disease, which indicates that she had been dependent on others to live 1.5 million years ago.
- Atapuerca (Spain) The skull of a young Homo heidelbergensis child (3rd image) found in the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) shows the signs of lambdoid single suture craniosynostosis (SSC), a premature closing of the bone. The resulting increased pressure would have impacted the brain's growth and impaired its function, while also affecting the facial appearance. The child - unlike an infirm adult, who may have already made a contribution to the society - survived for at least 5 years 530,000 years ago.
with special thanks
to my primary caretaker...