NYTimes.com > Science
The toothless skull of an early human ancestor discovered in the Caucasus may attest to evolution’s oldest known example of compassion for the elderly and handicapped, scientists report today.
Other experts agreed that the discovery was significant, but cautioned that it might be a stretch to interpret the fossil as evidence of compassion.
The well-preserved skull, found in Georgia, belonged to a male Homo erectus about 40 years old. All his teeth, except the left canine, were missing. Regrowth of bone indicated that the man had been toothless for at least two years before he died at what was then an old age. (The discoverers call him the “old man.”)
In their report today, in the journal Nature, the discovery team said the 1.77-million-year-old skull “raises questions about alternative subsistence strategies in early Homo.” Specifically, how could the man have survived that long, unable to chew the food of a meat-eating society?
In interviews and in the current issue of National Geographic, the paleoanthropologists said caring companions might have helped the toothless man by finding soft plant food and hammering raw meat with stone tools so he could “gum” his dinner. If so, they said, this was evidence of a kind of compassion that had been absent in the ancestral fossil record before the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago….