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Prehistoric origins: The compassion of far distant strangers

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Title of host publicationCompassion
DatePublished - 12 May 2017
PublisherTaylor and Francis
EditorsPaul Gilbert
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Human compassion has a long history. Archaeological evidence suggests that sustained care for those in need was part of daily life from the emergence of the very first early humans, over one and half million years ago. Though barely on the path to ‘humanity’ in biological terms, and physically and cognitively unlike us, such groups were nonetheless capable of something which feels quintessentially human on an emotional level - sustained care for those in need. In later species such as Neanderthals vulnerable individuals could be looked after for almost their whole lifetimes, apparently irrespective of circumstances. A whole range of injuries, from physical conditions leaving people unable to walk to brain injuries which will have affected cognitive abilities were accommodated. Moreover, wherever we find sizeable groups of individuals we also find some amongst them who must have been supported by the others. This extent of care challenges our preconceptions about survival in the distant past, seeming costly in functional terms. However far from being a weakness, emotional commitments to others seem to have been the basis for the in depth collaboration which was the basis for evolutionary success as well as being the starting point for those changes, such as brain expansion, that made us human. A human dependence on emotional commitments was not without its own costs - felt in terms of vulnerability to social emotions such as shame, anxieties over one’s social value, and vigilance over social threats. However these in turn drove motivations to help and alleviate emotional and well as physical suffering.

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© 2017 Informa UK Limited,

    Research areas

  • Compassion, Evolution of moral emotions, Palaeolithic archaeology, collaborative morality, care in prehistory

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