New research by archaeologists from the University of York says that Neanderthals were a lot more compassionate than their reputation as brutish cavemen.

How do you chart the 'compassion' of early humans?

They examined archaeological evidence for the way in which emotions began to be seen in our ancestors six million years ago(!) and then developed from earliest times through Neanderthals and then to modern people like ourselves.   From that, they proposed a four stage model for the development of human compassion, beginning million of years ago when some common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees experienced the first signs of empathy for others and motivation to ‘help’ them, perhaps with a gesture of comfort or moving a branch to allow them to pass.

The second stage in their model, 1.8 million years ago, sees compassion in Homo erectus beginning to be regulated as an emotion integrated with rational thought. Care of sick individuals represented an extensive compassionate 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.

Then they say 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 illustrated by a long adolescence and a dependence on hunting together. They say there is also archaeological evidence of the routine care of the injured or infirm over extended periods. 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 twenty years..

In modern humans starting 120,000 years ago, compassion was extended to strangers, animals, objects and abstract concepts.

Dr. Penny Spikins, who led the research, said that new research developments, such as neuro-imaging, have enabled archaeologists to attempt a scientific explanation of what were once intangible feelings of ancient humans. She added that this research was only the first step in a much needed prehistoric 'archeology of compassion', which sounds like it would be anthropology or psychology instead.

“Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion. It binds us together and can inspire us but it is also fragile and elusive. 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 about the prehistory of compassion,” she said.  “We 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’.”

Spikins will give a free public lecture about the research at the University of York on Tuesday,  October 19th called "Neanderthals in love: What can archaeology tell us about the feelings of ancient humans" takes place in room P/L001, Department of Physics.

They are publishing the study as a book The Prehistory of Compassion that is available to purchase online. All proceeds go to the charity World Vision.

Citation: P A Spikins, H E Rutherford, A P Needham, 'From hominity to humanity: Compassion from the earliest archaic to modern humans', Time and Mind Volume 3, Number 3, November 2010 , pp. 303-325(23) DOI: 10.2752/175169610X12754030955977