The history of human emotions, from the Paleolithic to the present.

So I was reading a book the other day about the emotional life of the Greeks, and got to thinking about the history of human emotions in general.

For example, I started wondering about whether man’s emotional range and capacity has essentially been the same from the Paleolithic era to the present, or whether certain emotions might be later additions to the arsenal, so to speak.

Is there a scientific consensus about man’s emotional range and capacity staying essentially the same from the Paleolithic era to the present? If not, have studies been made about how Paleolithic man’s emotional capacity differed from that of modern man? And what about the intermediate stages – say, Neolithic man? Or later, relatively recent eras, such as Babylon under Hammurabi or Egypt under Akhenaten?

Have scientific attempts been made to separate the “early” ur-emotions of man from the “later” ones? And if so, which emotions are considered “old,” and which are considered “new”? Does “love” pre-date “hate,” or is it the other way around? Is “guilt” a relatively late addition to our emotional register? What about “compassion”?

Now, I realize there is an important distinction to be made here between asking which emotions men of earlier eras were “capable” of feeling (which I’m guessing is a relatively simple neurological matter), and asking which emotions men of earlier eras actually felt (which I’m guessing is an insanely tricky cultural or anthropological matter, which probably just keeps getting trickier and trickier the further back in history you go).

I’ll admit that both questions fascinate me endlessly, so feel free to fire away! :smiley:

I think you’d first have to definitely establish that non-human animals don’t have emotions.

Which is, as far as I’m concerned, not true. I’ve been around animals enough to be certain that they do feel similar emotions to us. Ours are more complex, but animals certainly feel emotions. My guess is that emotions are a mammalian thing, not a humans-only thing.

There’s no reason to believe that modern humans are any different intellectually than the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago.

It’s certainly possible, even probable, that archaic Homo sapiens and the grab-bag of other early Homo species were mentally different from modern humans, but exactly how and why and in what way are pretty much impossible to know.

We do know that the toolkit of Neandertals was remarkably stable over tens of thousands of years. They made the exact same stone tools the exact same way over and over again. But modern humans don’t do that. Once modern humans arrived we see all sorts of different methods of making stone tools which changed over and over.

So there was something about Neandertals that made them less innovative than modern humans. But, to face facts, most modern humans aren’t innovators either, they just do things the way they’ve been taught. So if you went back in time to do an anthropolotical study of Neandertals, their lack of innovativeness might not be readily apparent. It could be that they’d seem pretty much like modern humans. Or maybe not. We do know that their brains were larger than modern humans, but their frontal lobes were smaller and their occipital lobes were larger. So it’s very likely that they experienced the world in a different way.

Well, first we’ll have to establish a control group of Paleolithic humans, and then…um…let me get back to you on that.

In all seriousness, the only way we know anything about the emotional life of the Greeks, or any other past civilization is through their surviving writings which, for pre-Renaissance societies was often limited to a handful of documents from the typically small segment of literate people. There are, of course, no writings from Paleolithic peoples, as they hadn’t gotten around to inventing papyrus, the printing press, or the Common Unix Printing System, and so we have no record, even subjective, of what they thought about the critical political, social, and cultural events of their day, including how much it pissed them off or how much guilt they felt about squeezing out H. neanderthalensis.

However, there appears to be little physiological change to the braincase from the Upper Palaeolithic era onward, and the range of human emotional capacity of all modern societies appears to be approximately the same (with consideration to differences in culture and environment) across the spectrum of ethnicity to the extent that unlike physiological diagnostic criteria (which assigns known prevalence of certain genetic-based disorders correlated with ethnic background) to effort is made to distinguish between “race” or ethnic characteristics with regard to psychological diagnostic criteria, and the prevailing evidence is that there is little if any epidemiological evidence that the prevalence of innate personality disorders varies significantly between different ethnic groups. Although we cannot conclude from this that the range of emotional capacity or experience has not changed over the span of modern human, there are no real indications that would lead us to believe that the early modern humans and even predecessors did not experience essentially the same basic emotional responses to common experiences, although the complexity with which such emotions could be expressed may have been more limited owing to the (presumed) primitive state of verbal communication.

It should be noted, however, that grammar is certainly not the primary medium for the expression of emotion; despite our modern focus on the spoken or written word to convey emotional state and response, we often fumble in expressing our true feelings to each other, or even stating them clearly to ourselves. Physiological responses such as hand/shoulder motion, eye contact, head position, and blush response, are far more indicative of emotional state, and are clearly long evolved features that are common across the variety of human population. Similarly, domestic animals that are kept for companionship (particularly canids) display behavior consistent with human emotion, including joy, sadness, trust, anger, fear, jealousy, and guilt (although it could be argued that this is an simulacrum of emotion evolved to appeal to the human desire for empathy). While more complex combinations of emotion may be the result of cultural inculcation and experience, the primary emotions seem to be common to all cultures and indeed, across the higher mammals in general, for the purpose of providing an instinctive guideline for behavior that is acceptable in social groupings.


:confused: Why do you say that? I don’t see anything in the OP to imply that animals do not have emotions. As even you seem to agree that animal emotions are not likely to be as complex and differentiated as modern human ones, to raise the possibility that modern human emotions might be different (or, rather, more complex and differentiated) that paleolithic human ones carries no implication that animals do not have emotions at all.

Other than that, I think Stranger has given an excellent answer, although I would quibble that to call the surviving and relevant documentary evidence from pre-renaissance societies “a handful of documents” is underselling it quite a lot. There might not be anything like the vast mass of documents that have accumulated post-Gutenberg, but when you add together what we have from peoples such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians, and especially the Chinese, Greeks and Romans (not to mention medieval Europeans), it does add up to a fair few library shelves. People can (and have) infer quite a lot from this evidence about the mental lives of early civilized peoples.

I interpreted the OP to be asking “When did humans start having emotions?” My mistake.

Julian Jaynes wrote The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in 1976 and received boatloads of attention for its thesis.

Richard Dawkins wrote “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between …”

Most people today would vote for “complete rubbish.” Jaynes doesn’t present any hard evidence, and there would not appear to be any way to get hard evidence, putting the thesis outside of science as we practice it. You might call it a work of literary criticism, since all he can do is examine early texts. Today we have far more and far earlier texts than he had access to in 1976. History is a longer continuum than he gave credit for.

Archaeological evidence consistently shows that humans were humans and behaved in recognizable human fashion as far back as we can trace. Written evidence about emotion is spotty. The first writing systems were tally marks for counting goods. There is no crying in math.

You never took Mr. Hood’s Calculus 2 class.

Although there are happy and sad numbers.

I think your best bet is looking at non-human primate studies, but there’s a lot of debate over what emotions non-human primates have. Some say that they can feel love, compassion, guilt and jealousy, while others say those are too complex. From working with a few monkeys, I’d say that guilt requires more mental cognition than love, hate, and compassion. I’ve seen the other three in monkeys, but I’ve not seen guilt, just fear of getting caught.

:: blink, blink ::: I need glasses. I misread the OP as the “history of human emoticons…”


“Sad neanderthal.”

The best argument against there having been any significant change in human consciousness or emotions in historical time is that, as Stranger notes, no scientific study has found any significant differences in emotional capacity between different human populations. So if you want to argue that there has been a significant change since the time of Hammurabi, you have to explain how the same change occurred in China, and the Americas and southern Africa and everywhere else we’ve looked, in what, evolutionarily speaking, is a very short space of time.

Some people have argued that “living in complex societies” is what drove the change. But there’s no evidence that hunter-gatherers are emotionally different to farmers or city-dwellers. And humans have been hunter-gatherers for a lot longer than they’ve been keeping history.

Pre-history, I don’t think there’s anything much anyone can say about the emotional range of early humans, except there’s no solid reason to think they were different from us.

Quoth Stranger:

Then again, one could also argue that human emotional response is itself just a simulacrum evolved to appeal to humans.

Well, that is a nice pity epigram to put in a book review, but it is not true. Although Jaynes’ big theory about the bicameral mind is almost certainly quite loopy, there is, nevertheless, a lot to be learned from his book about how people in early civilizations thought about the world (and how they thought differently from 20th century Westeners).

Furthermore, Jaynes is far from the only person to have studied these issues. For instance, an earlier (and IMHO less loopy) attempt along these lines is Bruno Snell’s The discovery of the mind: in Greek philosophy and literature. Inevitably, works of this sort are rather speculative, but so are all anthropological studies that try to gain some insight into an alien culture’s mindset, even when the people being studied are still around. It is not speculative in the sense of not being rooted in real evidence. People like Jaynes and Snell find plenty of relevant evidence in philosophical, medical, and, especially, literary writings from ancient times. Poets and dramatists have always had plenty to say about emotions.

But the point is that those documents were almost uniformly written by people who were either in or attached to elevated social strata. We have nothing like a direct record of the daily emotional experience of, say, Egyptian slaves or Sillan peasants. We can only infer from hearsay accounts by the few number of surviving texts authored by the literate elite what emotions and experiences were for the bulk of population of those societies.


Consciousness is just strange loops all the way around.


Three comments about Jaynes’ thesis:

  1. I do not believe it is “loopy.” He does have a variety of supporting evidence. It sounds “loopy” in part because of the exaggerated way he phrases it, writing “early Bronze age men lacked subjective consciousness” rather than that those “men tended to have a community-oriented ‘religion’” or some such.
  2. I don’t think Jaynes’ consciousness has that much to do with emotion.
  3. It is incorrect to equate Jaynes’ “bicameral mind” with the mind of Paleolithic man. Instead bicameralism arose with early civilization.

It’s been over 30 years since I read the book so I’m no longer competent to argue its details. It has a superficial allure that breaks down upon examination is as far as I’ll go.

It’s not anthropology in any sense I understand it. And real anthropologists have become increasingly uncomfortably with trying to guess what people thought from artifacts. For that matter, modern literary criticism has moved away from making those judgements about modern works. We obviously have enough trouble trying to figure out what people talking to us on the internet mean.

Personally I’m always struck when I read the classics (most recently the 12 Ceasars) how modern and unchanging the emotions themselves on display are. Exactly how they are shown, and sometimes about what, can seem very alien to a modern reader, but things like Augustus’ dispair over his tear away children, or Ceasar’s concern over his male pattern baldness could be written today.

That could be right, but as I understand it there’s still a healthy debate.