Saturday, January 18, 2014

2.5 million years ago: The dawn of empathy

A cro-magnum skull. 
The first humans walked the earth as early as 45,000 years ago. Chances are these early people suffered from diseases such as asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis, kidney failure, bronchitis, colds, and so forth.  So this is where our history must begin.

These are the people who ate the apples from the tree of knowledge, and who learned to have empathy for their fellow beings.  They therefore learned to not only feed and nurture themselves, but other people and animals as well.

Now we don't know if asthma existed back then, but let's assume it did.  Better yet, I'm certain asthma-like symptoms were probably felt by people when they were sick with infections, or perhaps as their heart and kidneys failed.  Chances are also pretty good people suffered from the occasional cold-like symptoms of sniffling and sneezing.

So let's assume a person 45,000 years ago was short of breath and gasping for air. Observing his misery, other members of the family or clan would come to his aid to offer any help they could.  They would, in this sense, be feeling empathy for their fellow suffering friend or family member.

Now let us take this a step further.  While a human is a human is a human, there were human-like people who roamed the earth long before us.  Whether or not we evolved from them is up to you to decide, but there is a ton of evidence that they existed.  There is evidence they were able to adjust to various situations, and to make their own tools.  There is also evidence that as their brains grew, they developed the ability to ponder about the world around them, and to, well, love and have empathy.

Scientists have placed the first humanoids (something that resembles a human) as first appearing on earth as early as 7 million years ago, with the first human-like humanoids walking the earth 2-3 million years ago. The first human-like humanoids were called Home or Homo Habilis, meaning "handy or skillful," writes Patricia Netzley in her 1998 book "The Stone Age."

These humanoids were the first to adapt to their surroundings by inventing and using stone tools. These tools were used for "scraping or sawing wood... cutting meat... cutting grass stems or reeds," she Netzley. (1, page 9, 12)

They were the first to joint together at a "home base," where they shared food. Food sharing, it must be understood, is among the first signs of empathy.  It must have been a major challenge to not eat the food you hunted for yourself, and carry it to the base camp for someone else to eat.  Helping others by feeding them must have been the earliest form of healthcare or medicine. (1, page 41)

About 1.8 million years ago was a more human-like humanoid called home erectus, which means "upright man."  They walked the earth until about 300,000 years ago.  This was the first humanoid to experience a population crisis, and this meant that there were too many people in a given area for the available food.

This provided an incentive for them to migrate to where food was available. This meant they were forced to adapt; to discover new lands, to find new food sources, to invent new tools, and invent new methods of living.  All of this would have been necessary in order to adapt to their new surroundings. (1, page 43-47)

The changing climate also forced them to migrate to places where it was cold, and they therefore were the first to discover the importance of fire sometime around 400,000 years ago.  At first they took advantage of natural fires that occurred due to lightning or lava, although eventually they learned to control fire themselves, and ultimately make it by themselves. (2, page 27)

While sitting around the fire homo erectus had time to experiment, and they learned that meat could be cooked, and that this made food more tender and easy to chew.  They also experimented by cooking various plants, and learned that plants that were stiff or horrible tasting became soft and easy to eat food when cooked.  (2, page 27)

So with less need for strong facial muscles to chew raw meat, some speculate fire may have contributed to the thinning out of the face and jaw (those who believe in the theory of evolution believe this anyway).

The first home sapiens, or "wise humans,"  started walking the earth around 500,000 years ago.  Among the most well known of the home sapiens were the Neanderthals (Neandertals) who lived in small groups of about 25, mainly in caves, although they did have the ability to make crude shelters of materials they gathered from the woods. They had mastered the use of fire, and perhaps it was because of the fire that encouraged small groups of men and women to band together as small families or tribes, replete with men, women and children who worked together for a common cause (or so we may speculate). (1, page 52-60)

People who mastered the skill necessary to make and control fire were among the most important members of the family or tribe.  The knowledge they obtained often meant the difference between keeping warm or freezing; life or death.  The fires allowed them time to socialize, and to fall in love with other members of the family or tribe.  This is evidenced by the fact they buried their dead in decorated grave sites, and provided the dead with gifts to take with them to the next world. (2, page 27)

Neanderthal men, and the women who were without child, searched for food during the day, and they brought this food back to the cave to share with the women, children, and the sick.  Yes, there is evidence Neanderthals took care of the sick.  (1, page 52-60)

One burial site was discovered of a man with no right arm, and there is evidence he managed with one arm for many years before he died, probably aided by his fellow men and women. (3, page 37)

Some speculate that the fact Neanderthals took care of the sick and performed burial rituals, and celebrated the life of the dead following these rituals, is evidence they had traditions.  The fact they had traditions is evidence, some suggest, that they had language.  This would have allowed one generation to communicate with the next, perhaps by easy to remember lyrics, or perhaps they just grunted (we just don't know). (1, page 61-63)

What we do know is Neanderthals thrived in Europe through hot and cold temperatures.  Their short, stocky frames required about twice as much food as we eat, and to do this they "lived around the edges of forests where they hunted large animals like red deer, horse and wild cattle. The forests gave them firewood, and materials to construct shelters and spears. (3)

Then "About 45,000 years ago, the climate of Europe went through a burst of very sudden switches between warm and cold conditions that would have transformed the Neanderthals' environment. The forests on which they depended began to recede, giving way to open plains.  On these plains, Professor Shea believes, the Neanderthal thrusting spear and ambush strategy wouldn't have worked. So Neanderthals retreated with the forests, their population falling as their hunting grounds shrank. (3)

When humans migrated to Europe around 30,000 years ago, their "better brains and more sophisticated tools" were no match for the Neanderthals, who shortly thereafter became extinct. Human tools and methods of adjusting made them better able to hunt amid and survive amid the the landscape created by mother nature.(3)

Now, where did these humans come from?  Some believe they were simply placed on this earth by God.  Others believe they evolved from the Neanderthals or some other humanoid species.  Others believe in some combination of these two theories.

Believe it or not, there are many Christians who believe there is far too much evidence proving evolution to deny it, and therefore many people now believe there is room for both Christianity and evolution.

If this is true, however, then it must be true that God created the earth and the humanoids long before the Biblical date for the creation of time, which is pegged by Biblical experts to be 4004 B.C. (I will delve into this date more later).

I'll let you believe as you wish.  All we are concerned about here is what would asthma be like if we lived among these people?  We have no idea.  There is no written record, and there is no evidence of asthma left behind.  Asthma doesn't make its way to bones, which is mainly all we have left of these prehistoric people.

As a matter of fact, asthma leaves no visible scars, not even among the living. So what was it like to live with asthma 2.5 million years ago?  What was it like to live with asthma among the Neanderthals?  All we can do is speculate.

Actually, we don't even know when asthma began to appear as a disease. What we can, I think, speculate accurately, is that people probably did get short of breath, or winded, since the beginning of time.

We can imagine that early humans had bodies that wore out early on in life.  Their kidneys started to shut down, and their hearts started to fail, and this would have caused you typical signs of respiratory distress; they would gasp for air, what the ancient Greeks would later refer to as asthma (more on the ancient Greeks later also).

It's also highly probable that many of the bacteria and viruses that plague humanity to this day irritated humanoids and early humans who walked the planet.  These germs entered the air passages, or were ingested by dirty hands, and made their way to places in the body they don't belong.  Prehistoric immune systems worked overtime to expectorate these germs, and this resulted in inflammation, including inflammation of the respiratory tract.  This would cause a runny and stuffy nose, itchy and watery eyes, scratchy throat, and even shortness of breath.

So in a world where humanoids and humans became increasingly empathetic toward their fellow men and women, in a world where they grew dependent on one another, in a world where they grew attached to one another, in a world where they fell in love with one another, they would most assuredly have felt sad when a parent, brother, sister, or friend, became ill in this way.

They would want to help out.  They would hunt and bring back food and water. They would speculate as to the cause, and provide what they thought was the remedy.  Sometimes what they did would work, and the remedy would be remembered.  More often, however, the remedy would fail, and sadness would ensue.

So we can see here that as far back as 2.5 million years ago humanoids had had the ability to adapt to their surroundings, to make stone tools and use them to hunt and prepare food, and to ponder about the world around them.

  1. Netzley, Patricia D, "World History Series: The Stone Age," 1998, San Diego, CA, Lucent Books
  2. Roberts, J.M., "The illustrated History of the World: Prehistory and the first civilizations: volume I," 1999, New York, Oxford University Press
  3. "Neanderthal: Their bodies were well equopped to cope with the ice age, so why did the Neanderthals die out when it ended,", Science and Nature,, accessed 4/4/13
  4. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An Introduction to the history of medicine," 1921, 3rd edition, Philadelphia and London, W.B. Saunders and Company
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