Care in the Community, Half a Million Years Ago at Atapuerca

Bit of a groggy start to the new week/year/decade, so before I wish everyone “Zorionak eta urte berri on”, and while I’m trying to finish writing up a paper on what Michael Balter has described as the origins of tidiness at Gesher Benot Ya’akov, here’s a look at at some fascinating research from the renowned site of Atapuerca, near modern-day Burgos in northern Spain – in short, the deformed skull of a child believed to have suffered from craniosynostosis has been discovered in Sima de los Huesos, indicating to researchers that this individual must have been the subject of conspecific care over a period of at least 5-8 years. Here’s the abstract of the paper (accessible as I write this)  by Ana Gracia of Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos, et al – it was actually published early in 2009, but this is the first I’ve seen of it, so apologies if this is old news to everyone else.


We report here a previously undescribed human Middle Pleistocene immature specimen, Cranium 14, recovered at the Sima de los Huesos (SH) site (Atapuerca, Spain), that constitutes the oldest evidence in human evolution of a very rare pathology in our own species, lambdoid single suture craniosynostosis (SSC). Both the ecto- and endo-cranial deformities observed in this specimen are severe. All of the evidence points out that this severity implies that the SSC occurred before birth, and that facial asymmetries, as well as motor/cognitive disorders, were likely to be associated with this condition. The analysis of the present etiological data of this specimen lead us to consider that Cranium 14 is a case of isolated SSC, probably of traumatic origin. The existence of this pathological individual among the SH sample represents also a fact to take into account when referring to sociobiological behavior in Middle Pleistocene humans.

With this by way of further explanation:

Paleopathology is the study of past diseases. In paleoanthropology, this is generally restricted to lesions of the bones and teeth. However, paleopathology can also inform about past human behavior in healthy individuals (ref. 1 and references therein), being cautious with the interpretation of health status of individuals and population based on any paleontological data (2, 3). Some pathological lesions produced by or related to human activities, including dietary aspects, can be treated, and social support can be provided by relatives or other members of the social group. Also, it is possible to hypothesize whether an affected individual would have been able to keep up with the group and provide for themselves within a hunter gatherer context, or whether long term survival due to a serious illness or injury was impossible without assistance from other members of the social group.

Neanderthals as well as other Pleistocene hominins have been claimed by some authors to likely have shown social caring for ill/nonautonomous individuals, in the same way as only modern humans have (1, 4). Here, we discuss a Middle Pleistocene case of a serious congenital skull deformation that may have required extra conspecific care for the individual to survive for a number of years before he/she died at the end of childhood.

The paper goes into some detail describing the skull, (which at around 500,000 years old would represent a pre-Neanderthal, possibly H. heidelbergensis or very late H.antecessor species of archaic human) thus:

Cranium 14 consists of an almost complete neurocranium lacking the face, the petrous and mastoid processes of the left temporal bone, the right occipital condyle, the ethmoid bone, and the central part of the sphenoid bone. After reconstruction, Cranium 14 revealed a premature suture fusion between the left parietal and occipital bones (Fig. 2. A and B; Fig. S2), which is the core of the present study.

There follows a description of the pathological condition, a differential diagnosis and etiology (possible cause(s) of the observed condition), followed by a discussion from which these snippets are excerpted:

There are some references about pathological specimens from the Pleistocene hominid fossil record with serious developmental/degenerative abnormalities. Among them, the oldest is dated in 1.77 kya and corresponds to that of the edentulous D3444/D3900 individual from the Dmanisi site, who “apparently survived for a lengthy period without consuming foods that required heavy chewing” (46). In this study, the survival of this specimen was interpreted as a possible evidence of conspecific care…

…As it has been claimed by DeGusta (50), inferences made about behavior in fossil hominid populations from skeletal pathologies must be tested with a comparative approach, but it is clear that the fossil evidence of individual cases that survived with different degrees of impairment has increased a lot (1 and references therein), and have been pointed out in some cases as evidence of conspecific care (4, 46)…

…In conclusion, Cranium 14 is the earliest documented case of craniosynostosis with resulting neurocranial, brain deformities, and, very likely, asymmetries of the facial skeleton. Despite these handicaps, this individual survived for >5 years, suggesting that her/his pathological condition was not an impediment to receive the same attention as any other Middle Pleistocene Homo child.

However, before we get too carried away about the unique way in which ancient humans might have cared for those less fortunate than themselves, it’s worth having a look at a supplementary essay by Jean-Jacques Hublin, namely The Prehistory of Compassion, in which he notes:

Particularly extreme pathologies, allegedly necessitating some support by conspecifics to allow the survival of their bearer, have provided the ground for debates on the level of altruism and compassion reached by ancient hominins. Often underlying these debates is the notion that, in this respect, their behavior was similar to our own and different from that of apes. Among the Pleistocene hominins, attention has been focused on the Neandertals in particular. This group has provided an abundance of paleontological material mostly dating between ca. 200 ka and 30 ka, including nearly complete skeletons.

Each of these rather complete skeletons displays one or more detectable traumatisms on the bones, which, in a few cases, resulted in significant impairments. One of the best known examples is that of a male individual from the site of Shanidar (Iraq) who survived an unrepaired fracture of the right arm above the elbow (2). Subsequently, his upper arm became atrophied and nonfunctional, and he may have lost his right hand and forearm entirely. In addition, this individual was likely partially blind and deaf, and had difficulties with locomotion. As the Shanidar 1 man apparently survived until an advanced age for a Neandertal (ca. 40 years), it has been argued that his survival was possible only because he received support from other adults in the group…

…However, claims have been made that the level of altruism displayed by chimpanzees could be much higher than what was once thought (12). For example, there have been reported cases of captive chimpanzees rescuing companions from drowning (13). Boesch and Boesch-Achermann (14) have also described a case of a wild adult male chimpanzee adopting an unrelated orphan.

Recent experimental data confirm that, in some settings, young chimpanzees demonstrate an understanding of others’ goals and an altruistic motivation help, regardless of whether this yields a reward or not (15). However, this incipient altruism seen in chimpanzees seems to disintegrate in competitive situations or when food sharing is involved. Interestingly, it has been observed that the food most often shared by wild chimpanzees is meat. Cooperative hunting (Fig. 1), as described in the Taï forest, for example, can result in meat sharing between hunt participants and nonparticipants (14). Because the increase in meat consumption is considered to be a major evolutionary change in early Homo, these hominins had to strengthen a behavior likely preexisting.

Clearly I’ve cherry-picked some of the more striking passages from these two papers, but nevertheless they should really both be read in their entirety, especially as they’re free to access, and the papers themselves are written in a clear and accessible style.

The main point I get from this and the GBY paper mentioned above is that behaviours we may instinctively interpret to be human, or even modern, often have much deeper roots than we might imagine, with lines of distinction between humans and our close relatives becoming increasingly blurred the closer we come to examine them.

via Discover Magazine


Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain, by Ana Gracia, Juan Luis Arsuaga, Ignacio Martínez, Carlos Lorenzo, José Miguel Carretero, José María Bermúdez de Castro, and Eudald Carbonell

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 April 21; 106(16): 6573–6578. Published online 2009 March 30. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900965106.

The Prehistory of Compassion by Jean-Jacques Hublin,

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 April 21; 106(16): 6429–6430. Published online 2009 April 20. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0902614106

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