Examination of skeletons from past millennia reveals that far from just leaving those who could not hunt and gather to die, prehistoric humans cared for the sick and disabled. Archaeologists have been able to discover this by studying ancient bones, says the New York Times.
As two researchers have noted in Anthropological Science and in the International Journal of Paleopathology, one skeleton, Burial 9, stood out when they excavated a burial ground in a site called Man Bac in northern Vietnam. In contrast to the other skeletons, Burial 9′s was laid out in a fetal position. From studying his bones, Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham of Australian National University in Canberra discovered that the man had most likely been paralyzed from the waist down due to a congenital disease, Klippel-Feil syndrome, and would not have been able to use his arms, feed himself or attend to other bodily needs.
But on studying the bones, Tilley and Oxenham found that he had lived into his 20s, in a culture in which people hunted, fished and raised “barely domesticated pigs.” The onset of a disease that made it impossible for him to participate in any such activities did not prevent others from caring for him.
Tilley had studied treatment outcomes in the health care industry prior to entering archaeology. Examining bones with a focus on how ancient people took care of their health can help us learn about “tolerance and cooperation” in a prehistoric culture. This discovery also shows us that the young man must have had “a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live,” to survive as long as he did.
The New York Times lists some other examples of what analysis of ancient bones can reveal about our prehistoric ancestors’ response to disability and illness.
Martin also points out that the young woman’s teeth had numerous cavities; she had also lost teeth from abscesses. Noting that her people grew dates, Martin posits that, to keep the young woman happy, she may have been fed “a lot of sticky, gummy dates, which eventually just rotted her teeth out, unusual for someone so young” — just as parents today (I speak from experience as the mother of son with many challenges) can find themselves sometimes over-”indulging” a child who has special needs with the basic things that please him or her.
(Just so you know, since we do live in an age with dental care and knowledge of the adverse affects of too many sweets, we do take care not to overload my son with such; he actually prefers a good burrito.)
We tend to think that we who live today are “advanced” in regard to people in the past, especially when it comes to the treatment of the sick and those with disabilities; that, in contrast to an ancient Roman law that a “dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed,” we recognize the rights of individuals with disability. But disability rights activists have to routinely refute claims that they are a “burden to society” and a “drain” on its resources.
We would do well to imitate our prehistoric forbears. I take a great deal of heart in knowing that, eons ago, people cared for those who could not care for themselves.
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