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  • Material Evidence: caring for adult vulnerabilities

    Penny Spikins

    Chapter from the book: Spikins, P. 2022. Hidden Depths: The Origins of Human Connection.

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    What can archaeological evidence contribute to our understanding of the origins of human empathy, compassion and generosity?

    We have seen in Chapter 1 that our human capacity for compassion and our tendencies to help others have an important evolved biological basis. Here, we focus on what the preserved material evidence of early humans and their behaviours can contribute to our understanding of how our emotional motivations to help others emerged. We particularly consider often-overlooked archaeological evidence for care for adults made vulnerable by illness or injury. This evidence demonstrates a deep past to human emotional motivations to help those around them. Furthermore, changing emotional motivations are a response to wider context and selective pressures, similar to those also seen in some other social mammals. A critical appraisal of evidence for responses to illness and injury suggest that significant changes in helping behaviour and responses to vulnerability may have taken place around 2 million to 1.5 million years ago – around the time of key ecological changes and a transition to a new hunting niche. Responses to vulnerability and motivations to help may have been a central element to cognitive-emotional changes that set humans on a track that is distinctive and much more interdependent than that of other apes. Considering the archaeological evidence for care allows us to add a time depth and an explanation for the model of changes in cognitive and affective empathy outlined in Chapter 1.

    An understanding of the potential significance of care prompts further questions, such as around different evolutionary pathways in emotional motivations, the relationship between biology and culture in care for illness and injury, the extent of human dependence on such care, and its significance in terms of extended lifespans. Nonetheless, it is clear that an extension of human empathy, compassion and generosity from at least 2 million years ago played a much more significant role in our evolutionary origins than is usually accepted, prompting us to reconsider the driving factors leading to human evolutionary success.

    Following on from the significance of interdependence, we consider the formation of relationships based on emotional commitments and trust, and the increasing importance of social reputation, in Chapter 3.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Spikins, P. 2022. Material Evidence: caring for adult vulnerabilities. In: Spikins, P, Hidden Depths. York: White Rose University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.22599/HiddenDepths.c

    This chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution + Noncommercial 4.0 license. Copyright is retained by the author(s)

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    Published on Aug. 23, 2022