Hermann J. Knippertz/AP
A 3D-print of the skull of a child with deformations.

Deformed Skull Could Provide Clues to Human Compassion

April 01, 2009 04:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Reconstruction of an ancient fossil skull suggests that early humans may have cared for the severely deformed.

When Did We Learn Compassion?

A team of researchers pieced together the skull of an early human, called the Homo heidelbergensis species, which was found in Atapuerca, Spain, about eight years ago. The researchers deduced that the child had been severely disabled, but lived to be at least five years old, suggesting that its parents and perhaps the community rallied to care for the child.

According to Wired Magazine, humans' propensity to care for the sick is a unique behavior called conspecific care, also known as compassion. Because not all primates display this trait, scientists believe that at some point in history, "humans evolved the ability."
However, Stanford University anthropologist David DeGusta takes issue with the inference of "caring behavior from a very limited fossil record," especially since great apes have been shown to "survive a variety of horrific injuries." DeGusta told Wired, "We just know that this individual survived. We don't know the circumstances."

Nonetheless, the finding is intriguing because mammals, including humans, have been known to deliberately kill their "unwanted offspring," reports National Geographic News. For example, the Inuit "used to kill babies with severe genetic defects," and researchers noted that a cemetery at a medieval poorhouse in England "contained a higher than normal number of children with deformities."

Background: Disabled children in modern society

Today, disabled children and adults still live with challenging stigmas and discrimination. In Tajikistan, for example, children with disabilities have long been excluded from society, and are often institutionalized due to a "lack of community-based family-support services," according to UNICEF.

This is particularly troubling because researchers have found that how mothers and babies interact during "the first year of life is strongly related to how children behave later on," according to ScienceDaily. A team led by Benjamin Lahey of the University of Chicago researched how a mother's style of parenting, combined with infant temperament, can predict behavioral issues down the road, such as lying, bullying and disobedience.

Related Topic: Stigma of developmental problems in adults

Last November, The New York Times reported on the stigma often attached to adults with developmental problems, who commonly face more discrimination and stereotyping than disabled elderly people. In the article, titled "Accepting the Retarded, as Long as They're Old," Eastchester residents opposed a group home for developmentally challenged men in their 20s and 30s, but were more accepting when the residence was home to a group of disabled elderly people.

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