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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Early hominid 'cared for elderly'
Hominid, Nature
The ageing individual lost his teeth some years before death
Ancient hominids from the Caucasus may have fed and cared for their elderly, a new fossil find has indicated.

The 1.77 million-year-old specimen, which is described in Nature magazine, was completely toothless and well over 40; a grand old age at the time.

This may suggest that the creature lived in a complex society which was capable of showing compassion.

Researchers think they may also have valued the old for their wisdom, just as more recent human groups have.

"It is pretty amazing that [hominid] society fostered this kind of thing nearly 1.8 million years ago," said co-author Reid Ferring, of the University of North Texas, US.

"Almost any way we cut it, this is very unusual and it is a totally new insight into the social relations of this early hominid."

Little people

The senior specimen is one of a collection of hominid finds from the famous site of Dmanisi, Georgia.

These people were remarkably human in a lot of ways
Co-author Reid Ferring
The little "people" - who stood at around four feet tall - have caused a lively debate amongst palaeoanthropologists.

So far it has been tricky to work out exactly what species they are. Many experts believe it was Homo erectus who first ventured out of Africa and spread around Asia.

But Dmanisi hominids were not typical of the tall-standing, big brained Homo erectus - instead they were short, long-armed, small-brained, thin browed.

This has led some to believe they may have been Homo habilis. But the relatively ape-like Homo habilis was not thought to have lived outside Africa.

Other researchers have coined the term Homo georgicus to decsribe the finds - so the confusion continues.

Despite the fact they used only very basic chopping and cutting tools and the lack of evidence for use of fire by these hominids, the new discovery hints at a new level of sophistication.

"My personal opinion is that these people were remarkably human in a lot of ways," said Professor Ferring. "These were tiny people living in a very harsh environment.

"I think we can only compare them to modern humans in their social skills and behaviours, which allowed them to survive against all these odds."

Death sentence

The ageing individual - who lost his teeth some years before death, palaeoanthropologists estimate - would not have been able to chew the raw meat or fibrous plants which made up the creatures' normal diet.

For most animals other than humans - and their now extinct cousins the Neanderthal - this would have been a death sentence.

But, Professor Ferring believes, this "old man" must have been kept alive by being fed the choice soft morsels like brain, marrow and succulent berries.

Dmanisi hominid reconstruction
Elderly members of the group may have been valuable for cultural reasons
"Cooking was not in the equation and it is inconceivable that he would have been able to eat raw meat," he said. "So he must have consumed much more than his share of these very choice soft foods.

"He was either being cared for or being given very preferential treatment."

Whether his group was just being kind, or whether there was an ulterior motive, can only be guessed at. It is possible, according to Professor Ferring, that the toothless man was an extremely useful member of his society.

"It is unclear whether he could contribute to the livelihood of the whole group in terms of procuring food and defending the group and caring for young," Professor Ferring told the BBC News website.

Elderly members of the group may also have been valuable for cultural reasons, just as in modern societies.

Professor Ferring said: "This person might have had a function similar to old people in hunter gatherer societies - his experience and knowledge may have given him high status."

Georgian skull's link to our past
10 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature
First humans 'small brained'
04 Jul 02 |  Science/Nature
Neanderthals were 'adults by 15'
28 Apr 04 |  Science/Nature

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