Man's Humanity Toward Man

Man's Humanity Toward Man

More than half a million years ago a human quenched his thirst at a nearby stream. Whether he was careless, inattentive, or momentarily off guard, his leg was suddenly seized in a viselike grip by a gigantic crocodile. The man was in the process of being dragged into the river when his screams attracted his companions. They ran to his rescue and assaulted the reptile with rocks and clubs until it was forced to release its victim and swim away. The unfortunate human was carried to camp, where he lay for some weeks while his leg slowly healed. His injuries disabled him for life.

That interpretation is based on the recent find of a Homo erectus leg bone in Java. It showed evidence of a very disabling crocodile bite that later healed. The nature of the wound clearly showed that the man had been crippled permanently, yet had lived for years after the incident. To be unable to fend for oneself in the hostile world of the Stone Age the man must have been cared for and protected by his companions.

Another recent find in Kenya shows signs of human compassion within a family group. This again involved a Homo erectus and occurred in the same geologic age as the incident just described. The find was a diseased partial skeleton of a female.

Scientists studied the fossil bones intensely and determined that the cause of death was a bone disease resulting from an excessive intake of vitamin A. At the time that she lived, about 500,000 years ago, the easiest way to get a whopping does of vitamin A was to eat the liver of a large carnivore. All animals store this vitamin in their liver, and many species have the metabolic ability to partially detoxify it. Humans do not have this capacity. Since carnivores always eat the livers of their kill, their intake of vitamin A is enormous. Therefore, in the course of its life a carnivore's liver becomes more and more toxic.

What is most surprising in this case is that the woman was able to obtain an entire carnivore liver, or at least a large portion of it. Considering that the liver is not likely to be left to scavengers, this liver was most certainly the prize from a fatal clash between a family of Homo erectus and a large carnivore, such as a saber—toothed tiger. The latter lost!

The woman was probably present during the fight, but how she was permitted to keep and eat a large share of the liver will certainly never be known. As she greedily enjoyed the liver, she was unknowingly condemning herself to a slow and painful death. The effect of eating such a vitamin—rich liver was dramatic; it adversely affected her entire skeletal system. Examination of the remains showed evidence that this Paleolithic woman must have lived for several weeks after she consumed the toxic liver.

To have lived so long in a state of physical disability and pain, she would most certainly have become quite helpless. She must have been cared for by her companions, presumably members of her family or tribe. There is no doubt that early man was a ruthless predator, but he was also gregarious and emotionally attached to his family.

A recurrent thread of information acquired from the study of Neanderthal remains is that their social bonds were exceedingly strong. Consider the plight of the "Old Man of La Chapelle—aux—Saints," a predicament quite similar to that of the Shanidar caveman cited earlier in this book. The "old man" had died over 50,000 years ago and was definitely given a ceremonious burial. In life he had suffered a broken rib, severe hip arthritis, and diseased vertebrae, and to make matters worse he had a gum disease that caused almost all of his teeth to fall out. He was certainly unable to hunt; he couldn't chew very well, and it is doubtful that he could even walk without some kind of support. Yet he survived to the ripe old age of forty, a real senior citizen among the Neanderthals. Clearly his companions had to provide for and take care of him, or he would have died at an early age. His usefulness was probably restricted to menial, sedentary jobs, such as tending the fire.

Since most Neanderthals died in their early twenties, it seems ironic that, because he was relieved of hunting responsibilities, he was exposed to few of the hazards of the Stone Age and therefore outlived most of the people who took care of him.

The incident just described and a host of others reveal altruism and a social consciousness that one would scarcely expect from the brutish, savage Neanderthal. As one scientist pointed out, "In the light of twentieth—century human behavior, we should be careful whom we call brutish."

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth