Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the human existence as one of "continual fear and danger of violent death," and human life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." He laid the groundwork for today's popular, almost cartoonlike, stereotypes of some of our early ancestors such as the Neandertals and Cro-Magnons, and hominids such as Homo erectus. But what he omitted in his biting commentary on human selfishness is an aspect of humanity also frequently overlooked in the study of prehistory: the evidence for compassion. While precious little material culture is left from the very earliest days of our predecessors, it nevertheless provides us with a revealing glimpse into their world and their behavior and ultimately some insight into our own.
Although the experience of early humans some 1.7 million years ago may seem incalculably distant or even unimaginable, we have only to look to the savanna environment that prevails today in many parts of the world--most famously in Africa--to set the scene. As the name implies, Homo erectus walked upright, with head above shoulders, and could easily see above the tall grasses that characterized the landscape. Most of the year, the season was long and dry in an environment of brief and limited rainfall. The climate was warm, and vast grasslands stretched to the horizon, occasionally interrupted by clusters of trees. Homo erectus would have watched grazing herds of antelope, elephants, and rhinoceroses and the activities of such predators as hyenas and lions. Much of the daily action revolved around water sources, and from near the largest desert lake in the world, Lake Turkana in the far north of Kenya, the key player in our most ancient drama emerges. A Homo erectus woman named, rather clinically, KNM-ER 1808 was excavated there. (KNM-ER stands for Kenya National Museum-East Rudolph, since Lake Turkana was once known as Lake Rudolph). Although her skull had the prominent brow ridges, low forehead, and protruding lower face that would have made her unusual-looking to modern eyes, the structure and size of the rest of her body was very similar to ours. At the time of her death, she was an adult and stood some five feet eight inches tall. We know all of this because of the numerous skeletal bones that were successfully excavated from the now dry lake. From the outset, however, these bones were notable not only for their abundance, and hence the relative completeness of her skeleton, but also for the strange lesions and growths that were present throughout her limbs.
Although the core of her bones was normal, it was clear that some pathology had been at work that had created abnormal bone growth surrounding the healthy inner material. Careful inspection led to the diagnosis of a condition known as hypervitaminosis. A, essentially an overdose of vitamin A. She almost certainly had developed the condition in the same way as has been noted in our own time--that is--through the repeated eating of the livers of carnivores. The liver is a storehouse of vitamin A, where the vitamin is never broken down, and carnivores obtain fairly large doses of it when consume their prey. When humans consume those livers, they receive an inordinate amount of vitamin A, which can lead at first to nausea, dizziness, and cramps, progressing to hair loss and fragile, peeling skin, with eventual swelling of the bones and debilitating pain. It was a condition that ultimately proved fatal for 1808 but which lasted long enough for her bones to have recorded the effects for weeks or even months. In fact, the condition most likely left her unable to care for herself, and yet she continued to survive. That survival could only have been accomplished with some aid. She would have required some food but also, perhaps more importantly, more water than normal. It is reasonable to infer that water was somehow carried to her since a location too near a water source would have meant exposure to the predators that typically hunted there. …