It seems scientists are still surprised by evidence of more human, rather than primitive animal, behavior in very early human ancestors like Homo Heidelbergensis. In a study presented to the National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified a 530,000 year-old member of the species with a deformity known as craniosynostosis, a condition where the skull sutures of a child close prematurely. The condition usually results in mental retardation because the developing brain can not expand normally. The Pleistocene-era child survived to about eight years old, so obviously received adult attention to reach that age.
But there are other early historical examples of compassion towards the physically deformed as described in Nick Thorpe's paper, "The Prehistory of Disability and ‘Deformity:
Deliberately killing unwanted offspring "is not an uncommon practice among mammals, including great apes," our closest genetic relatives, Ana Gracia of the Centro UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamientos Humanos in Madrid explained.
Evidence of the practice also exists among modern human cultures. The Inuit, for instance, used to kill babies with severe genetic defects.
And at a medieval poorhouse in England, where parents often left their unwanted children, the cemetery contained a higher than normal number of children with deformities, the study team noted. - More: National Geographic News
Are examples of compassion found in the early archaeological record simply remains reflecting a parent's instinct towards their offspring? Should we attribute compassion to an entire population group based on such isolated findings? Would a deformed child whose parents had perished been cared for by others?
Yet there are examples which go against this, as at Salzmünde-Schiepzig in
Germany, where a child from the Early Bronze Age was buried in a wooden
coffin at the edge of a settlement. This child had suffered from both
incorrectly aligned thighs and a very long and narrow head obstructing brain
growth, with possible consequences ranging from restricted vision to partial
In the Early Neolithic of France, c. 4800 BC, an elderly man buried at
Buthiers-Boulancourt had, some years before death as indicated by
the degree of healing, had his lower left arm amputated. Despite this,
he was buried with highly prestigious grave goods of a complete sheep or
goat, a polished stone axe and a flint pick.
A case of dwarfism resulting from a genetic mutation occurred at Riparo del
Romito in Southern Italy at the end of the Paleolithic around 10,000 BC. Despite his severe condition, which must have greatly limited his ability to contribute to either hunting or gathering, the young man survived to the age of 17.
[Photograph courtesy of Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez from Asturias, España]