The days of using the term "Neanderthal" as an insult may be on the way out as research published today shows the early humans had a deep-seated sense of compassion.
A team from the University of York examined archaeological evidence for the way emotions began to emerge in our ancestors and then developed to modern people.
One of the key findings of the research shows how, in Europe between around 500,000 and 40,000 years ago, early humans such as Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals developed commitments to the welfare of others illustrated by a long adolescence and a dependence on hunting together.
The injured or infirm were routinely cared for in this period, according to the findings.
Remains examined by the university's Department of Archaeology researchers revealed how a child with a congenital brain abnormality was not abandoned but lived until five or six years old and shows how a Neanderthal with a withered arm, deformed feet and blindness in one eye was cared for, perhaps for as long as 20 years.
The four-stage model developed by Penny Spikins, Andy Needham and Holly Rutherford charts the beginnings of human empathy from six million years ago when the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees began to "help" others, perhaps with a gesture of comfort or moving a branch to allow them to pass.
Compassion in Homo erectus 1.8 million years ago began to be regulated as an emotion integrated with rational thought, the researchers said.
Care of sick individuals showed compassion towards others while special treatment of the dead suggested grief at the loss of a loved one and a desire to soothe individuals.
In modern humans starting 120,000 years ago, compassion was extended to strangers, animals, objects and abstract concepts.
Dr Spikins, who led the study, said new research developments such as neuro-imaging have enabled archaeologists to attempt a scientific explanation of what were once intangible feelings of ancient humans.
She said: "Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion.
"It binds us together and can inspire us but it is also fragile and elusive. This apparent fragility makes addressing the evidence for the development of compassion in our most ancient ancestors a unique challenge, yet the archaeological record has an important story to tell about the prehistory of compassion.
"We have traditionally paid a lot of attention to how early humans thought about each other, but it may well be time to pay rather more attention to whether or not they 'cared'."
The research is published in the journal Time and Mind and Dr Spikins will give a free public lecture at the University of York on Tuesday October 19.