A nearly two-million-year-old fossil find in the Republic of Georgia may be evidence of the first signs of early human compassion, scientists say. According to a report published today in the journal Nature, the remains are from an individual who spent the last years of his life with only one tooth. This shortcoming may have left him dependent on the kindness of others in order to find sufficient sustenance.
The site at Dmanisi, Georgia, has in recent years provided multiple fossil discoveries that suggest the presence of members of our genus, Homo, roamed outside of Africa 1.7 million years ago. In the new work, David Lordkipanidze of the Georgian State Museum in Tbilisi and his colleagues describe a skull and jawbone from a hominid male who had lost all but one tooth. The tooth sockets had been resorbed into the skull, suggesting that he had lost the teeth several years before dying. The discovery represents the earliest case of severe masticatory impairment in the fossil record yet found, the researchers say.
Near the site of their latest find, the scientists also uncovered stone artifacts and animal bones with toolmarks on them. In order to survive without the ability to chew or bite meat, the gummy individual would have needed to collect sufficient soft food, including bone marrow, brain matter or soft plant food. Such gathering or processing could have been done alone, but the scientists posit that other individuals may have helped because of the individual's advanced age or illness, either of which could have been responsible for the loss of his teeth. The discovery, the authors conclude, "raises interesting questions regarding social structure, life history and subsistence strategies of early Homo that warrant further investigation."