An excavation carried out between 1999 and the early 2000s found five unique human skulls at the Dmanisi site in Georgia. These bones were 1.8 million years old and corresponded to the first hominids to come out of Africa. Of these five skulls, one stood out, which belonged to an individual between 50 and 60 years old (a very advanced age at that time) and who during the final stage of his life had lost all his teeth. This member, therefore, was dependent on the rest of the group to chew his food and would probably not be able to perform many of the daily activities on his own. Still, the clan fed and cared for him to the end of his days. Today this altruism would be normal, but at the time it was much more expensive. In the animal world, one of the only species that has shown a similar level of compassion are today’s painted wolves of the African savannah. A recent study, published in the journal Scientific Report, has determined that the ancestors of this species already behaved like this 1.6 million years ago, and that this attitude could help them conquer a vast territory.
In 2018, a group of researchers led by Bienvenido Martínez Navarro, paleontologist and ICREA researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), found some teeth from Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides at the Dmanisi site. This enclave is located 85 kilometers south of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and historically it has been a place of passage between Europe, Asia and Africa, both for animals and humans. Since excavations began in 1983, the aforementioned human skulls have been found in this area, as well as bones of rhinos, buffalo, horses and even ostriches.
In 1995, Martínez Navarro himself participated in the exhumation of some remains of Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides at the Venta Micena field, in Orce (Granada). This individual had an asymmetrical skull and was missing some teeth, so, in the words of the researcher himself, “he had lost a lot of predatory capacity.” This lack, however, was not the fruit of age. An X-ray revealed that the alveoli present in the roots of all the teeth were missing, indicating that certain mouthparts were never there. “While individuals are alive, bones are also alive and adapt to circumstances. If a piece is lost [dental], the alveolus closes, because all kinds of infections can penetrate there. In the case of this animal, we saw that this resorption of the alveolus did not occur. In other words, the animal never had that canine, ”he explains.
Despite his complicated oral situation, this individual lived for about seven or eight years, according to estimates based on the wear of the teeth that he did have. “If he became old, it is because he was helped by his fellows, who allowed him to eat the prey they hunted,” says the expert. This behavior, which is well documented in current African painted wolves, already occurred 1.6 million years ago, the date from which the remains of Orce date. “These groups were cohesive, they took care of the elderly, they protected and cared for each other. What seems to be that there is a parallel in the altruistic, and even compassionate, social behavior of human groups ”, comments the researcher.
Since excavations began in 1983, hominid remains have been found in Dmanisi, as well as the bones of rhinos, buffalo, horses and even ostriches.
This altruism of the licaones was discovered with the finding of 1995, although the remains found in 2018 in Dmanisi allow to establish a relationship between this behavior in the first men and the first painted wolves. “They are two species that are found in the same site, highly social and altruistic and that are also two highly successful species in terms of their dispersal and colonization of new territories”, compares Martínez Navarro. “The first lycaons appear in Asia, colonize Europe and also reach Africa about 1.8 million years ago. It is at the same moment in which the human groups that appeared in Africa colonize Eurasia ”, concludes the researcher.
At present, most predators living in communities do not allow members who do not participate in the hunts to eat, with the exception of the young. Martínez Navarro cites the case of lions as an example: “They are a highly social species. You see how they participate in the hunt and how they organize. But if one does not participate in the hunt, the others do not authorize that later he can eat. They authorize the young, but not the adults ”. According to the researcher, there is no other species with such a developed altruism as the painted wolves and this research suggests that they have been acting this way for millions of years.
“The two species with the most social capacities are the most successful when it comes to dispersing around the world
Welcome Martínez Navarro, author of the study
Jordi Agustí, ICREA research professor at IPHES, who has not collaborated in this research, considers that the work confirms that this species was present in Dmanisi: “Until now this species had been cited in Dmanisi but there was no detailed study that would allow its comparison with the remains of other sites ”. According to the paleontologist, this attitude is not exclusive to these wolves, since it is also seen in some apes such as orangutans. “In primates, this type of behavior falls within a logic of survival of the species; in social carnivores it’s a bit more surprising, ”he says. Agustí also highlights the importance of knowing the ecosystem in which the human being developed after leaving the African continent. “After all, hominids and lycaons competed with each other. This provides information on what the ecosystem was like where the first hominids that left Africa developed ”, he points out.