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.
- 45,000 years ago, a Neanderthal, Shanidar 1, lived to the age of 50 in what is now modern-day Iraq though one of his arms had been amputated, one of his eyes lacked vision and he had sustained other injuries.
- 10,000 years ago, Romito 2 lived until he was a teenager; his skeleton shows that he had a form of severe dwarfism that meant his arms were very short. He was therefore unable to live by hunting and gathering among his people, who “would have had to accept” what he could not do.
- 7,500 years ago, Windover boy in Florida lived to the age of 15 though he was born with spina bifida, a severe congenital spinal malformation.
- 4,000 years ago, a young woman from a site on the Arabian peninsula lived to 18. She had a neuromuscular disease, possibly polio, with very thin arms and leg muscles that would have made walking and movement extremely difficult. Debra L. Martin, associate professor of biological anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that she would have needed “round the clock care.”
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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