Did early humans take care of the sick, the wounded, and the aged? Modern humans, of course, count on our families, friends, and society to look after us, for better or worse. Many researchers consider such strong social bonds a hallmark of humanity. But evidence of earlier species of humans taking the less fortunate under their wings has been sparse, although in recent years researchers have made a number of claims for such helping behavior. The latest one comes from the site of Atapuerca, near Burgos, Spain, where researchers have been digging up fossils of early humans since the early 1990s. A team led by anthropologists Ana Gracia and Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid reports finding the deformed skull of a child (shown above) estimated to have been between 8 and 12 years old when he or she died about 530,000 years ago. The sex of the child could not be determined, but it suffered from a rare syndrome called craniosynostosis, in which the sutures of the skull close early, the team concludes online this week in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In modern humans, craniosynostosis can cause brain damage and developmental defects such as mental retardation, and children suffering from it need special treatment and care.
The skull was recovered in many pieces during the 2000 and 2001 excavation seasons at Atapuerca and came from a part of the site called the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of the Bones), where the remains of nearly 30 Homo heidelbergensis individuals have been found; the species is thought by many researchers to be the direct ancestor of Neandertals.
Although the team admits that it cannot know how debilitated the child was, the skull deformation was serious enough that it could have caused both mental retardation and a markedly deformed face and head. Nevertheless, the child managed to live a number of years, which the team concludes was very unlikely if adults had not been taking care of it. To support their claim, Gracia, Arsuaga, and their co-workers point to a number of other recent papers that may also indicate caring behavior by early humans.
If recent debates are any guide, however, this contention is bound to be controversial, as have been nearly all the previous claims the team cites. In 2001, for example, anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and his colleagues reported in PNAS finding a toothless Neandertal jawbone at the site of Bau de l’Aubesier in southeastern France. They concluded that its possessor, who lived nearly 200,000 years ago, had needed help from its fellow Neandertals in finding suitable things to eat. That claim led to 2 years of jawboning between Trinkaus and anthropologist David DeGusta, now at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in the scientific literature and the news media, as noted in a brief item in Science. DeGusta cited numerous cases in the literature in which toothless, nonhuman primates had survived to relatively ripe ages by finding ways to feed themselves.
A much older sighting of toothlessness—a 1.7-million-year-old skull found at Dmanisi in Georgia and missing all but one tooth—also sparked the suggestion that the hominin might have needed special care from family and friends. But it too was met with skepticism. Still, the Atapuerca team might have one of the strongest cases so far for caring behavior, as a handicapped child would definitely require special attention.
PHOTO CREDIT: PNAS