Healing the Sick

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Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Absolute Difference
Human Universality: 
Population Universal (Some Individuals Everywhere)
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Attempts to heal the sick and injured are made in all known societies and archaeological evidence of such attempts is ancient and widespread.  In all cases the attempts can go beyond the care for the ill or injured that occurs among nonhuman primates.

Healing is a practice that affords special attention/behavior to ill or injured individuals in order to accommodate dysfunction and restore health. All human societies have developed means for dealing with health challenges. Healing can be distinguished from maintenance activities like grooming and care of the young by the involvement of pathology. Healing efforts can be categorized into self-healing and other-healing. Consumption of abrasive leaves for intestinal parasite expulsion, for example, is often cited as evidence for self-healing in chimpanzees. Both types of healing require interest in/identification of illness, inductive reasoning to discern appropriate actions, and intentionality to implement treatment. Healer/patient relationships appear to involve additional elements of illness display, empathy, and specialized caretaking behavior. Healing may benefit social animals by increasing group survival and inclusive fitness.

The scope of human healing includes a large range of practices from shamanism to modern pharmaceuticals. Sophisticated human treatments can be traced back to the Neolithic, during which trepanation and dental drilling provide artifacts of human health interventions. Evidence prior to this period is extremely limited, as are contemporary accounts of sickness/healing among other great apes. Unlike prey animals, which often attempt to disguise illness/injury to avoid predation/herd rejection, chimpanzees engage in illness display behaviors that advertise disadvantage and may be used to manipulate surrounding individuals. Examples of feigned illness in chimps find analogy in modern human behaviors that are classified as malingering, drug seeking, or “Munchausen” (attention seeking) disorders. In response to an injured member of the group, chimpanzees also exhibit travel pace changes, food sharing, wound cleaning, and extra accompaniment. Although humans demonstrate exceptionally sophisticated models of illness and disease specific treatments, the cognitive and social components of health care appear to be present in chimpanzees. These traits may extend to other great apes and a common ancestor.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Possible Appearance: 
25,000 thousand years ago
Probable Appearance: 
6,000 thousand years ago
Definite Appearance: 
10 thousand years ago
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  1. Palaeontology: early Neolithic tradition of dentistry., Coppa, A, Bondioli L, Cucina A, Frayer D W., Jarrige C, Jarrige J-F, Quivron G, Rossi M, Vidale M, and Macchiarelli R , Nature, 2006 Apr 6, Volume 440, Issue 7085, p.755-6, (2006)
  2. Primates of Western Uganda, Newton-Fisher, N. E., Notman Hugh, Paterson J. D., and Reynolds V. , Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects, p.516, (2006)
  3. Evolution of Sickness and Healing, Fabrega, H. , p.379, (1997)