A new study found that early humans learned kindness and compassion at least a million years ahead of the development of intelligence and language.

The australopithecines (killer ape), early hominids with small brains that lived in Africa between one and four million years ago, were carrying small rocks with pits and markings resembling a baby's face. There is also evidence that the Homo ergaster (working man) and Homo heidelbergensis (Heidelberg man) that also lived in Africa between 1.3 and 1.8 million years ago were taking care of the ill and disabled.

These findings contradict an earlier belief that early humans learned intelligence and language first before they understood emotions.

"Human evolution is usually depicted as driven by intelligence, with empathy and deeper emotions following," study leader Penny Spikins of the University of York told the Sunday Times.

"However, the evidence suggests it happened the other way round. Evolution made us sociable, living in groups and looking after one another, even before we had language. Our success since then, including the evolution of intelligence, all sprang from that."

Spikins is aware that her study will spark a debate because it is long known that early humans were cruel hunters, but her study says that early human survival was based on cooperating rather than fighting.

"The idea that we are all innately selfish, which comes from modern economics, has had a strong influence on how we interpret archaeological finds, but the evidence suggests that ... early humans' survival would have depend­ed on co-operation: aggres­sive or selfish behaviour would have been very risky," Spikins said.

Spikins pioneered the compassion-before-intelligence study back in 2010. More details of her findings can be read in her book, "How Compassion Made Us Human."