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Neanderthals had feelings too, researchers say

Oct. 5, 2010
Courtesy of the University of York
and World Science staff

Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple had a deep-seat­ed sense of com­pas­sion, their brut­ish reputa­t­ion not­with­stand­ing, ac­cord­ing to new re­search from the Uni­vers­ity of York, U.K. 

The study al­so ex­am­ines the emer­gence of com­pas­sion in oth­er early hu­mans. Sci­en­tists “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’,” said ar­chae­o­lo­gist Pen­ny Spikins of the uni­vers­ity. 

Spikins and col­leagues have em­barked on what they call the “u­nique chal­lenge” of chart­ing the de­vel­op­ment of hu­man com­pas­sion. They stud­ied ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence for the way emo­tions, as they claim, be­gan to emerge in our early an­ces­tors and then de­vel­oped to more re­cent hu­mans such as Ne­an­der­thals and our­selves. The re­search by Spikins, An­dy Need­ham and Holly Ruth­er­ford is pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Time and Mind.

They pro­pose a four-stage mod­el for the de­vel­op­ment of hu­man com­pas­sion. It starts six mil­lion years ago when a com­mon an­ces­tor of hu­mans and chim­panzees ex­pe­ri­enced the first awak­en­ings of an em­pa­thy for oth­ers and mo­tiva­t­ion to help them, per­haps with a ges­ture of com­fort or mov­ing a branch to let them pass.

The sec­ond stage, from 1.8 mil­lion years ago, sees com­pas­sion in the hu­man an­ces­tor Ho­mo erec­tus be­gin­ning to be gov­erned as an emo­tion in­te­grat­ed with ra­tional thought. In this pic­ture, care of sick peo­ple rep­re­sented an ex­ten­sive in­vest­ment, while the emer­gence of spe­cial treat­ment of the dead sug­gested grief at the loss of a loved one and a wish to soothe oth­ers’ feel­ings.

In Eu­rope be­tween around 500,000 and 40,000 years ago, early hu­mans such as Ho­mo hei­del­ber­gen­sis and Ne­an­der­thals de­vel­oped deep-seat­ed com­mit­ments to the wel­fare of oth­ers, as il­lus­trat­ed by a long ad­o­les­cence and a de­pend­ence on hunt­ing to­geth­er, the re­search­ers pro­pose.

They al­so cite what they call ev­i­dence of rou­tine, long-term care of the in­jured or in­firm. This in­cludes the re­mains of a child with a con­gen­i­tal brain ab­nor­mal­ity who was not aban­doned but lived un­til five or six years; and those of a Ne­an­der­thal with a with­ered arm, de­formed feet and blind­ness in one eye who must have been cared for, per­haps for as long as 20 years.

In mod­ern hu­mans start­ing 120,000 years ago, com­pas­sion was ex­tend­ed to strangers, an­i­mals, ob­jects and ab­stract con­cepts, ac­cord­ing to the Spikins group’s mod­el.

“Compas­sion is per­haps the most fun­da­men­tal hu­man emo­tion. It binds us to­geth­er and can in­spire us but it is al­so frag­ile and elu­sive,” Spikins said. “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.”

Spikins will give a free pub­lic lec­ture about the re­search at the Uni­vers­ity of York on Oct. 19. The re­search­ers are al­so pub­lish­ing the study as a book, The Prehisto­ry of Compas­sion, with all pro­ceeds prom­ised to go to the char­ity World Vi­sion.


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Neanderthal people had a deep-seated sense of compassion, their brutish reputation notwithstanding, according to new research from the University of York, U.K. The study also examines the emergence of compassion in other early humans. Scientists “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’,” said archaeologist Penny Spikins of the university. Spikins and colleagues have embarked on what they call the “unique challenge” of charting the development of human compassion. They studied archaeological evidence for the way emotions, as they claim, began to emerge in our early ancestors and then developed to more recent humans such as Neanderthals and ourselves. The research by Spikins, Andy Needham and Holly Rutherford is published in the research journal Time and Mind. They propose a four stage model for the development of human compassion. It starts six million years ago when a common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees experienced the first awakenings of an empathy for others and motivation to help them, perhaps with a gesture of comfort or moving a branch to let them pass. The second stage, from 1.8 million years ago, sees compassion in the human ancestor Homo erectus beginning to be governed as an emotion integrated with rational thought. In this picture, care of sick people represented an extensive investment, while the emergence of special treatment of the dead suggested grief at the loss of a loved one and a desire to soothe others’ feelings. In Europe between around 500,000 and 40,000 years ago, early humans such as Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals developed deep-seated commitments to the welfare of others, as illustrated by a long adolescence and a dependence on hunting together, the researchers propose. They also cite what they call evidence of routine, long-term care of the injured or infirm. These include the remains of a child with a congenital brain abnormality who was not abandoned but lived until five or six years old and those of a Neanderthal with a withered arm, deformed feet and blindness in one eye who must have been cared for, perhaps for as long as 20 years. In modern humans starting 120,000 years ago, compassion was extended to strangers, animals, objects and abstract concepts, according to the Spikins group’s model. “Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion. It binds us together and can inspire us but it is also fragile and elusive,” Spikins said. “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.” Spikins will give a free public lecture about the research at the University of York on Oct. 19. The researchers are also publishing the study as a book, The Prehistory of Compassion, with all proceeds promised to go to the charity World Vision.