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The archaeology of compassion.

Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the human existence as one of "continual fear and danger of violent death," and human life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." He laid the groundwork for today's popular, almost cartoonlike, stereotypes of some of our early ancestors such as the Neandertals and Cro-Magnons, and hominids such as Homo erectus. But what he omitted in his biting commentary on human selfishness is an aspect of humanity also frequently overlooked in the study of prehistory: the evidence for compassion. While precious little material culture is left from the very earliest days of our predecessors, it nevertheless provides us with a revealing glimpse into their world and their behavior and ultimately some insight into our own.

Although the experience of early humans some 1.7 million years ago may seem incalculably distant or even unimaginable, we have only to look to the savanna environment that prevails today in many parts of the world--most famously in Africa--to set the scene. As the name implies, Homo erectus walked upright, with head above shoulders, and could easily see above the tall grasses that characterized the landscape. Most of the year, the season was long and dry in an environment of brief and limited rainfall. The climate was warm, and vast grasslands stretched to the horizon, occasionally interrupted by clusters of trees. Homo erectus would have watched grazing herds of antelope, elephants, and rhinoceroses and the activities of such predators as hyenas and lions. Much of the daily action revolved around water sources, and from near the largest desert lake in the world, Lake Turkana in the far north of Kenya, the key player in our most ancient drama emerges. A Homo erectus woman named, rather clinically, KNM-ER 1808 was excavated there. (KNM-ER stands for Kenya National Museum-East Rudolph, since Lake Turkana was once known as Lake Rudolph). Although her skull had the prominent brow ridges, low forehead, and protruding lower face that would have made her unusual-looking to modern eyes, the structure and size of the rest of her body was very similar to ours. At the time of her death, she was an adult and stood some five feet eight inches tall. We know all of this because of the numerous skeletal bones that were successfully excavated from the now dry lake. From the outset, however, these bones were notable not only for their abundance, and hence the relative completeness of her skeleton, but also for the strange lesions and growths that were present throughout her limbs.

Although the core of her bones was normal, it was clear that some pathology had been at work that had created abnormal bone growth surrounding the healthy inner material. Careful inspection led to the diagnosis of a condition known as hypervitaminosis. A, essentially an overdose of vitamin A. She almost certainly had developed the condition in the same way as has been noted in our own time--that is--through the repeated eating of the livers of carnivores. The liver is a storehouse of vitamin A, where the vitamin is never broken down, and carnivores obtain fairly large doses of it when consume their prey. When humans consume those livers, they receive an inordinate amount of vitamin A, which can lead at first to nausea, dizziness, and cramps, progressing to hair loss and fragile, peeling skin, with eventual swelling of the bones and debilitating pain. It was a condition that ultimately proved fatal for 1808 but which lasted long enough for her bones to have recorded the effects for weeks or even months. In fact, the condition most likely left her unable to care for herself, and yet she continued to survive. That survival could only have been accomplished with some aid. She would have required some food but also, perhaps more importantly, more water than normal. It is reasonable to infer that water was somehow carried to her since a location too near a water source would have meant exposure to the predators that typically hunted there. In modern parlance, she had a caregiver. In an environment where survival routinely rested on a knife-edge, such acts of caring took on an importance that may have elevated those actions to life or death choices. A companion or companions exercised intelligence and great effort in prolonging 1808's life--actions that we would easily recognize as compassionate, despite the great distance in time and experience that separates us. However, we need not look back to the dawn of humankind for evidence of compassion in the archaeological record. From a time much closer to our own and yet still part of the Ice Age Paleolithic, a Neandertal man testifies to the compassion of his era.

High up on a hillside in the ragged Zagros mountains of modern day Iraq, with a commanding view of the Shanidar valley spreading below it, the mouth of an enormous cave can be seen from miles away. Some four stories tall and extending back one hundred feet, it has recently been a cavernous home to families of modern herdspeople, but it has likely been a natural shelter and haven since people first wandered into the valley tens of thousands of years ago. Of all the inhabitants of this cave over time, however, it is one person in whom we are particularly interested, dubbed Shanidar I and later nicknamed Nandy by his excavators (a team headed by Ralph Solecki who excavated between 1951 and 1960).

Shanidar I lived 45,000 years ago, at a time when the mountaintops were perpetually snowbound and the winters long and severe. It was an era of glacial conditions across much of Europe, where only deep river valleys escaped the great ice sheets. In the shelter of valleys such as Shanidar, a steppe-grassland would have prevailed. Bison, horses, reindeer, and mountain goats would have inhabited this region, and trees may have been thick near the river at the valley bottom. However, there was always the cold and the danger of procuring food. In fact, Neandertal injuries are remarkably traumatic and frequent and have been compared with, of all people, those of modern rodeo riders--people who are in close proximity to large and unfriendly animals. Like his compatriots, Shanidar I had suffered traumatic injuries in his lifetime. His right foot had been fractured and the left side of his face had received a blow that may have produced blindness in the left eye. The top right side of his skull had also received some damage, but all of these injuries had healed well before the time of his death.

More serious than any of these injuries, however, was a disability with which he had very likely been born--a withered and useless right arm. In a sometimes brutal environment that challenged the fittest people of the time, he would barely have been able to fend for himself. But instead of being abandoned at birth, he lived to the ripe and arthritic old age of forty, which was quite elderly for a Neandertal. We can only speculate at the nature of his reciprocal contributions to the welfare of his companions or the regard in which he was held. But until his death under the crashing weight of rocks that had dislodged from the roof of the cavern, Shanidar I had undoubtedly relied heavily on the goodwill and compassionate behavior of the members of his group. Without their care, it is highly unlikely that he would have survived his various injuries. Indeed, the fact that he had survived to adulthood at all is testimony to the caring actions of those around him. His archeological discovery forever revolutionized the way in which Neandertal social behavior and complexity is now interpreted.

As a more temperate climate started to replace the receding glaciers of the last Ice Age, human activity truly began to flourish in Europe. This period would eventually come to be called the Upper Paleolithic, however the name doesn't do justice to the extraordinary achievements for which it has become famous. As one example, we can thank Upper Paleolithic artisans for the extraordinary cave paintings of Lascaux, France, as well as various forms of sculpture carved in different locations. Venus figures, small clay statues of women with large bellies and breasts, hint at the elaboration of ritual and belief systems. Artistic expression seemed to virtually explode, as though it had been pent up for all the preceding history of humanity, but there is one particular cave called Romito in Italy that draws our attention over the myriad others. For not only is Romito Cave home to artistic expression from the era, it is also the final resting place of a unique burial.

As true eleven thousand years ago as it is today, the climate of the land surrounding the Mediterranean was strongly influenced by the ocean and typified by cool summers and mild winters (by Ice Age standards, of course). Summer temperatures may have been in the balmy mid-to-upper fifties (Fahrenheit) while the winters were still routinely in the low thirties. Although most people lived in settlements established near all-important fresh water sources, some utilized temporary camps to take advantage of seasonally abundant resources, such as migrating animals. The artwork of Romito Cave, like much artwork of the era, concerns the realistic outline of an enormous and animated bull that was likely the subject of the hunt. The nomadic people who moved across the landscape of this area were constantly adapting their diet as well as their subsistence strategies in order to cope with the changing climate.

Despite the spare and rigorous hunting and gathering lifestyle, the Upper Paleolithic people who frequented the Romito Cave took time not only for artwork but also for the ritual burial of an extraordinary individual who died at the adolescent age of seventeen. Not only was the youth unusual for being buried in a cave (typically a location reserved for persons of special social status) but also for the fact that he represents the earliest known example of a human who suffered from acromesomelic dysplasia, also known as dwarfism. Even today, this congenital disorder is extremely rare. The dwarf known as Romito 2 was characterized by unusually short forearms and lower legs, resulting in a rather short stature. Abnormal cartilage and bone development also affected other bones of his body, particularly those of his hands and feet. There was likely a limited extension of the elbows and arms, and progressively abnormal curvature of the spine.

Like Shanidar I, Romito 2 was an individual who almost certainly couldn't have reached late adolescence without the support of members of his group. Unlike Shanidar I, however, Romito 2 was a severely disabled individual whose physical impairments must have prevented him from contributing much to the welfare of the group--a substantial handicap for roaming hunter-gatherers. Remarkably though, Romito 2 shows no evidence of nutritional stress, having consumed more than enough calories for a relatively healthy existence. The cause of death remains unknown; any number of soft tissue injuries or diseases that leave no trace on the skeleton could have spelled the end. Instead, the bones of Romito 2 are a very clear indicator for a high level of group acceptance and support not typically envisioned for Stone-Age humans. Despite their artistic and technological achievements, we might assume that Upper Paleolithic people were unavoidably intolerant of an atypical individual or anything that might jeopardize their own well-being and even brutish in the single-minded quest for continued existence. However, Romito 2 is a resounding counter that the rush to survival didn't necessarily mean the disposal or doom of disabled members of their society.

While the eloquent bones of our ancestors contribute to a growing body of knowledge regarding human evolution, do they actually demonstrate compassionate behavior? Let us argue for a moment that they don't and that there must be alternative explanations. Individuals such as 1808, Shanidar I, and Romito 2 may simply have been much more robust and successful in their survival activities than we can imagine. When almost driven to the point of perishing, they may have chosen to perhaps exert a superhuman effort in finding water on the savanna despite debilitating pain, create a useful role as a fire tender in a glacial environment, or somehow exploit resources only a short distance from the settlement. We might very reasonably expect that all humans will struggle toward survival and a few will indeed surmount huge odds. The remains of these particular individuals, however, speak to much more than above average efforts on their own behalf. Each one shows signs of long-term and incapacitating disease, injury, disability, or a combination of these. In archaeology in general, when interpreting the material culture of the past, we could postulate an infinite number of potential scenarios that might explain our finds. But, in reality, only a small subset is actually feasible, fits all the data at hand, and has a high probability of being fairly accurate. Frequently and overwhelmingly the most average, mundane, and easily accomplished explanations account for the vast majority of what we find. In that same vein, these individuals have routinely been interpreted as evidence for existing prehistoric social structures that called upon members of a group to support one another.

However, even if we can interpret their behavior as supportive, is it compassionate? Archaeologists are loath to project modern sensibilities into prehistory. Instead, it is much more prevalent and accepted for material culture to be interpreted in material ways. The emergence of emotions, higher-level cognition, tool making, speech, and even supportive behavior can all be interpreted as advantageous to the perpetuation of the species. Perhaps the supportive behavior of these early people actually accrued some advantage to them in their own time, but it certainly confers some benefit to future generations that members of the species will work together for the survival of more than just the individual. In this type of interpretation, compassionate behavior fits into an equation for continued survival and is logical. It is also, however, an explanation and analysis that strips the individuals of their own independent thoughts and motivations. Let us not forget that the actions of the group, or the individual caregivers as the case may be, very likely placed them under added survival stress, at least in the short term. We can never know for certain what emotion or thought accompanied their actions, but they constantly exercised choices in those actions.

From our standpoint, looking back on stories that have long since reached their conclusion, there is no doubt that the choices made by Homo erectus, Neandertal, and Cro-Magnon furthered the survival of disadvantaged members of their societies. If we can count such supportive behavior as compassionate, if only by virtue of its results, then there is ample evidence for the existence of compassion in our ancestors. Moreover, because of its early and persistent appearance in the archaeological record, we can begin to speculate that the presence of compassion is yet another hallmark of what makes us human in the first place.

Terisa Green is an archaeologist and research associate with the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her recent research is centered on mortuary symbolism and how it can be interpreted to shed light on the beliefs of ancient peoples.
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Author:Green, Terisa
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 2003
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