Monday, October 11, 2010

Big Questions Online - What Can Archaeology Tell Us About the Development of Human Emotions?

This is a cool article on the prehistory of human compassion that can be derived from the archaeology. We were much better people in those days than many people might believe - and even the neanderthals look pretty humane in taking care of their own.

What Can Archaeology Tell Us About the Development of Human Emotions?

A roundup of answers from the authors of “The Prehistory of Compassion.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

Penny Spikins: Archaeology has been slow to engage with emotions and their development as a research topic despite them being key to what makes us human and how we form decisions. Compassion—the feeling of sympathy for others in distress or suffering that motivates us to act—is perhaps one of the most significant. It is clear today that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, display compassion, and that we ourselves can be highly compassionate. Our research set out to explore the 6 million years that have elapsed since the last common ancestor between these two compassion-bearing species, how this emotion manifested in hominins that are now extinct, and ultimately how it developed into what we possess today.

We searched the archaeological record for reliable indicators of genuinely compassionate acts, such as caring for others over a long timescale; taking risk, pain, or cost on others' behalves; and soothing others in distress. Any one case might not necessarily mean much, but we found that there was a real wealth of evidence. This was used as the foundation for a four-stage model of the development of compassion in humans and our ancestors over the past 2 million years.

I think, as archaeologists, we can be afraid of studying something that has in the past been intangible or difficult to define, yet archaeology has an important story to tell about compassion in our early ancestors. Life is full of untold stories of everyday people who courageously and selflessly care for others, and it is heartwarming to be able to extend that very 'human' story back so many thousands and even millions of years. We think the story that the archaeological record has to tell us about compassion in ancient humans is an important one. The world of early humans is the one in which our feelings and humanity was forged, and we think it is important to realize that much of what makes us special as a species is about the lengths we are prepared to go to look after one another.

Holly Rutherford: When studying the archaeological record, we found some truly inspiring stories. For example, some 530,000 years ago at the site of Sima de los Huesos in Spain, a cranium of a child most likely between 5 and 8 years old at the time of death was found. This child suffered from a condition called "lambdoid single suture craniosynostosis," a premature closing of some or all of the separate bony elements of the skull. This would have caused a build up of pressure on the skull and brain, likely impacting upon the child's cognitive faculties, in addition to giving the child an unusual appearance relative to other children of a similar age. Ana Garcia, the excavator of this site, noted that "her/his pathological condition was not an impediment to receive the same attention as any other Middle Pleistocene Homo child." Despite the additional care requirements this child would have needed, it survived for a number of years, clearly reflecting the capacity for compassion and long-term care in Homo heidelbergensis.

Evidence is especially rich in the Neanderthal species, with abundant evidence of long-term care for others. Perhaps the most striking example comes from the Shanidar cave in Iraq. Here, an adult male suffered multiple fractures across his body, with the right side being particularly badly affected. He further suffered from a withered right arm, with the forearm being completely lost before his death. Also present were degenerative deformities in both of his legs that would have caused him to have a painful limp. He further received a "crushing" injury to his cranium, possibly causing blindness in his left eye due to the deformity of the skull. Studies of Shanidar 1's injuries have suggested that the majority occurred in adolescence, yet were largely healed by the time of his death. What is amazing is that his demise was some 20 to 35 years later, at the age of between 35 and 50 years old. Despite a long list of severe injuries, this individual was looked after for almost all of his life and lived to a relatively advanced Neanderthal age.

Andy Needham: Physical traces from skeletons often make for quite moving tales of compassion in early hominin species. There is evidence beyond the body itself that can tell us about our ancestors. Burial practice is particularly useful when trying to understand the feelings of early hominins. Neanderthals are perhaps the earliest species to practice burial. At the Shanidar cave, Neanderthals were buried between 45,000 and 100,000 years ago. At least half of the 10 individuals recovered from this site reflect intentional burial. Neanderthals could care not only about living individuals, but also about people who had died. Here we begin to see the emerging of a capacity to extend compassion to more abstract concepts.

It is with modern humans that this extension into the abstract really takes off. Early modern humans also buried their dead, though they displayed a new focus toward objects. Burial was common generally, but individuals with complex care requirements, such as a young child from Sunghir in Russia who suffered from bowing of the legs, were singled out and often contained a great wealth of grave goods, in this case several thousand ivory beads.

With modern humans, we saw a new practice: that of caring through and deriving comfort from objects. It is with modern humans that decorative objects, such as shell beads, became common. We believe these objects acted as a source of comfort between different group members. This assertion is based on the practice of converting human teeth into beads and wearing them, deriving a sense of well-being from the object and its meaning; here, caring was transmitted through objects and made people feel secure even when the person was no longer there. Think about the comfort we draw from seeing photographs of our loved ones today, even when they might be hundreds of miles away. Objects in the past may have acted in a similar way for modern humans, connecting people emotionally through time and space.

Penny Spikins, Holly Rutherford, and Andy Needham are researchers in archaeology at The University of York.

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