Anthropologists have found evidence of compassion in our ancestral bones — very old bones. This is an excerpt from a 2010 article, “The Prehistory of Compassion,” in the journal Time and Mind, a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary academic journal that covers with the cognitive aspects of cross-related disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, and psychology and about how findings about prehistory can help research on the brain and consciousness.
The most well known early example of long term support for someone who couldn’t look after themselves comes from from a site in Kenya where KNM-ER 1808, a female Homo ergaster dated to around 1.5 million years ago,was discovered. Examinations of the skeletal remains of this early woman have led to suggestions that she was suffering from hypervitaminosis A, a disease caused by excessive intake of vitamin A (perhaps due to eating excessive quantities of liver or bee larvae.) Symptoms of hypervitaminosis A include a reduction in bone density and the development of coarse bone growths, both of which are present in KNM-ER 1808’s skeleton.
The pathology present would have taken weeks or even months to develop, accompanied by symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, lethargy, loss of muscular coordination and impaired consciousness. Symptoms of this type would have greatly hindered her capacity for independent survival, yet she survived long enough for the disease to be identifiable in her skeletal pathology, something which only occurs in the advanced stages of hypervitaminosis A.
Alan Walker and Pat Shipman suggest “someone else took care of her”, and David Cameron and Colin Groves add:
“There is no way she could have survived alone for long in the African savanna . . . someone must have been feeding her, protecting her from carnivores…The group dynamics of early Homo must have been based on some form of mutual support.”
There are other examples that make fascinating reading.