Did our compassion make us human?

Archaeologist and scholar Penny Spikins agues that compassion and cooperation were driving forces of human evolution.

A broadly accepted paradigm of human behavior has suggested that human survival in evolutionary history was due at least in part to the “killer ape” instinct, the drive or imperative to ‘eliminate’ our competition or perceived obstacles without compassion. A first glance at the archaeological record seems to support these views. Archaeological evidence of violent deaths in early prehistory often takes center stage in the media, drawing our attention with the same fascination that is generated by stories of murder or armed conflict. It is thus easy to imagine our distant past in terms of a rather harsh competition for survival.

However, an alternative picture has increasingly emerged, suggesting an entirely different image of our distant human past. Take for example the 1974 discovery of the remains of a 1.6 million-year-old Homo ergaster female in Kenya. A characteristic outer layer on her bones showed that this woman had suffered from hypervitaminosis A, a condition which also affected early explorers who in desperation had eaten the livers of their huskies. This condition leads to a long and painful death; however, it was clear from characteristic signs on her bones that this woman must have been cared for, provided with food and water, and protected from predators for many weeks. At the time of the discovery, this evidence stood out as intriguing and inexplicable. 



 An abnormal layer of bone illustrates the pathology which would have lead the Homo ergaster female, KNM ER 1808, to have been immobilised and in considerable pain before her death. 


But evidence that care for the vulnerable was a common occurrence in our ancestors has actually been accumulating now for many years. At Sima de los Huesos in Atapuerca in northern Spain, for example, of the approximate 28 individuals deposited in a natural pit sometime around 450,000 years ago, three exhibited a long-term condition which must have been debilitating. A small child, aged around 5 years old at her death, suffered from craniosyntosis, a torsioning of the crania, which gives an unusual appearance and often leads to mental defects; an elderly man with a severe pelvic deformity must only have been able to walk slowly and with a stick; and another individual was probably deaf. Examination of the bones suggested that all three had been carefully cared for. 

Amongst Neanderthals, the extent of care is remarkable. In addition to the evidence for frequent injuries on many skeletons there are also well-known cases of individuals who have been cared for despite very debilitating conditions. Perhaps the most famous of these is the man buried in Shanidar Cave around 40-65,000 years ago. With a withered arm, probable blindness in one eye, and a damaged right foot and leg, he was clearly severely impaired, yet had been looked after for at least ten years. We can only begin to speculate about how his group managed to care for him or what role he might have played in society. 



 View of the exterior of Shanidar Cave, taken during the summer of 2005.



Abnormalities of the Shanidar 1 Neandertal. Left: depressed fracture of the left orbit, bridging osteophyte of the L3 body, osteoarthritis growth of the lateral right distal femur, and healed osteomyelitis of the right clavicle. Middle: the fractured, amputated and withered right humerus with the left humerus. Right: the left pedal skeleton with talocrural and medial tarsometatarsal osteoarthritis plus a metatarsal 5 fracture. Courtesy Erik Trinkaus (see Trinkaus, E. 1983. The Shanidar Neanderthals). 


 It is certainly possible, as amongst many modern hunter-gatherers, that individuals with disabilities among the early prehistoric hunter-gatherers took on certain social roles. At least there seems to be an association between elaborate burials in Ice Age Europe, such as those at Sunghir or Romito, and disability, and a sense that physical differences allowed individuals in early prehistoric societies to contribute in other ways. A Mesolithic woman from Bad Dürrenberg in Germany, for example, showed a deformity of the bones in her neck which is likely to have led her to experience unusual sensations and seizures, and her unique elaborate burial with unusual grave goods has been interpreted as that of a shaman



 Romito 2, an individual with a mesomelic form of dwarfism who is likely to have been cared for my his group. Courtesy David Frayer


However we explain the existence and integration of individuals with disabling conditions, our reconstructions of the distant past, until now full of images of young, strong, healthy individuals (mostly males) striding across landscapes, clearly demand a reappraisal. Difference and disability was clearly far more a part of our evolutionary past than heretofore imagined, as challenging to many theorists as that might be. 

But what is changing in our attitude to evidence for care of the vulnerable in the distant past is perhaps more that we now seem prepared to begin to discuss what this evidence means, apart from the discoveries themselves. Lorna Tilley’s recent volume points out the paradox that important evidence for care, which is widespread in prehistory, has been only rarely discussed. One might even conclude that it seems to have been swept under the carpet. Lorna herself studied one of the most famous and most inspiring cases of care. At the site of Man Bac, a site in Vietnam dated to this area’s Neolithic period at about 3,700 to 4,000 years ago, the burial of a man with quadriplegia was discovered. He had only limited mobility of his upper body and would have been paralyzed from the waist down, yet survived for at least ten years completely dependent on those around him to care for him. They would have needed to provide him with food and water, as well as turning him carefully to prevent the formation of sores. We can imagine that caring for him must have involved much of the community. It is rather humbling that a Neolithic community managed to provide a level of care which would be challenging to provide even with today’s medical facilities. 



 Burial 9 from Man Bac, in Vietnam, of an individual with quadriplegia. Courtesy Lorna Tilley



This emerging ‘new story’ of the remarkable extent of care for the vulnerable in our distant past makes some sense of what many psychologists have discovered about our evolved tendency to altruism. Neurological studies show that we have a remarkable tendency to respond to those who are suffering, with the types of nurturing and caring responses seen in mother-infant bonds in other mammals having been adapted through human evolution to include mates, kin and even unrelated people. Even in modern western industrialized societies, the members of which seem to be more self-interested than those in other, more traditional societies, we know that most people would prefer to step in and experience pain on behalf of others. It thus may make sense that collaboration, based on strong bonds with a great deal of give and take, would allow small scale hunter-gatherer societies in the distant past to work together in unique ways to survive difficult conditions.

This evidence also presents us with a problem, however: How can we explain how a willingness to help others evolves, even though it might seem more rational to avoid the costly time and effort that it demands?

The answer may lie in other clues from the archaeological record. From around 1.6 million years ago we see faunal remains which demonstrate increased evidence of collaborative hunting and scavenging, which must have involved taking risks on behalf of others to tackle large mammals or fend off predators. At the same time we see offspring becoming more dependent. Perhaps most tellingly, we see increased attention to the form of artifacts, with extra attention to aesthetics, as seen in the symmetry of handaxes, as well as other stone tool characteristics and industries that suggest the application of greater levels of patience and skill. These changes have been seen as concomitant with the significance of a positive social reputation to building alliances and finding a mate. Rather than being aggressive or dominating, in the societies which emerged from around 1.6 million years ago onwards, it seems that showing courage on behalf of others, being prepared to support offspring and the vulnerable and demonstrating compassion to the weak may have become more significant in making friends and allies and in evolutionary success. 



 Olduvai handaxe, Lower Palaeolithic, about 1.2 million years old, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The attention to form in such stone tools provide us with some of the earlier indications of the importance of positive reputation. British Museum, BabelStone, Wikimedia Commons


Violence may leave an archaeological signature which is often obvious and commands our attention. However, acts of aggression represent a few moments of time in the distant past. It may now be time to pay attention to the hidden record for sustained care for others, over periods of months and years, in the distant past. We may find something there more significant and more uniquely human.


Readers can find out more about the theory and practice in the bioarchaeology of care from Penny Spikins book, How Compasion Made Us Human*, published by Pen and Sword books. A discount code for readers of Popular Archaeology is offered at 25% off the RRP at http://www.amazon.com/How-Compassion-Made-Human-Archaeology/dp/1781593108.   


*SPIKINS, P.  A. 2015. How Compassion Made Us Human. Pen and Sword books. TILLEY, L. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. 


Penny Spikins is currently Senior Lecturer at the University of York, Department of Archaeology. Her early research centered on Mesolithic northern England where she retains an interest and enthusiasm, although she is best known for her later research into the evolution of social emotions and the significance of care for the vulnerable in human origins.  Penny has directed a major excavation project at Mesolithic sites in the Pennines, and underwater archaeological fieldwork in the North-East. Her published volumes include Mesolithic Europe (CUP) with Geoff Bailey, Prehistoric People of the Pennines (West Yorkshire Archaeology Service) and Mesolithic northern England: Environment, Population and Settlement (BAR). Over the last ten years she has particularly focused on cognitive and social evolution, publishing papers on the evolution of compassion (Time and Mind), dynamics of egalitarianism (Journal of World Prehistory), the origins of autism (Cambridge Archaeological Journal), evolution of self control and display in artefacts (World Archaeology) and Neanderthal childhood (Oxford Archaeological Journal).

Her latest book, How Compassion Made Us Human, argues that a selection for pro-social emotional motivations has been the driving force behind human evolution