Monday, April 13, 2009

How old is compassion?

I recently wrote about natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, in bacteria, which is a pretty ruthless process. When it comes to humans, I’m thankful that we care for the sick and the disabled. Having had a few common health issues myself, I know that in the wild, I probably would not have made it past 15 or 16 years old (ever had mono? I can’t imagine hunting mammoths with mono). That being said, I always assumed that compassion and care for the ill was a relatively new concept, made possible by advances in civilization. A new paleopathology (that’s the study of past diseases) finding suggests compassion may have much earlier roots.

A group of Spanish bone hunters found a very interesting cranium at the Sima de los Huesos site in Spain. The cranium belongs to a child who died between the ages of 5 and 12 years old and who lived at least 530 000 years ago! The cranium has been almost fully reconstructed and clearly shows many signs of malformations. The researchers were able to link those signs to a disease that still exists today called craniosynostosis. This disease can have multiple causes and results in cranial deformities (such as an asymmetrical face) and mental retardation. In this case, the pathology would have been present before birth. So what we have here is that 530 000 years ago, there was a child who was visibly abnormal and affected in a way that he or she probably would not have been able to keep up with the group. The amazing finding of this paper is that this child made it to be at least 5 years old, and probably closer to 10 years old. This suggests not only that the population did not act against the individual who was different or sick during infancy (i.e. they didn’t kill a sick baby, like some other populations have been known to do), but also that they cared for the disabled. Not something I would have expected of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

An interesting question that springs to mind here is, if humans from the Neanderthal era showed some form of compassion, what about animals? I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes out for more research in this area. This kind of science is my favorite: answer a question, and many more arise (unless we’re talking about my thesis project: in that case, all I want are answers).

As I mentioned, I always thought that caring for the ill was a very recent human behavior, but now I’m not so sure. In any case, I’m just glad to know that our ancestors were not complete jerks.

Image of the cranium from the original article
Gracia A. et al, Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, Mar 30 2009.

2 Responses to “How old is compassion?”

Jade's Opa said...

You ever seen a mother robin go bonkers and virtually take a run at a potential human helper after a robin chick fell out of its nest?

I am certain that compassion is also a vital ingredient in the preservation or development of a species.

Humankind has produced its share of geniuses, who started out life as sickly kids. As I understand, in past societies, those not fit enough to slay mammoths, but smart or handy enough to make spear heads, were as valuable to the community as the guy who'd poke that spear head between the ribs of a prehistoric proboscidian.

Presumably, medical knowledge half a million years ago wasn't advanced enough to permit the community where that sick kid was born to conclude with certainty that this kid would not turn out to be the star spear maker of all times.

You make a good point, Jade's Opa, and I like your spear making vs mammoth slaying example. Thanks for the comment!

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