5 Prehistoric People Who Prove Our Ancestors Took Care of the Disabled

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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Photo from Thinkstock


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

portraying ancients as barbaric and without compassion is ignorant, bonds are not unique to modern human, or to humans in general

Lika S.
Lika P5 years ago

So humanity isn't so barbaric after all... Now if we could do something about racism, discrimination, etc... All the wars and hatred could use some help.

Melania Padilla
Melania P5 years ago


Amber Martingale
Angela Roquemore5 years ago

The authors didn't mention that Shanidar 1 served as the inspiration for the Neanderthal shaman named Creb in Jean M. Auel's debut novel *The Clan of the Cave Bear.*

Martin Stride
Martin Stride5 years ago

It doesn't surprise me. Humans haven't evolved in any significant way since the dawn of recorded civilization.

We evolved our giant brains in an era when we utilized them more fully and recognized that the potential worth of a human being does not lie in having perfect arms.

Morgan McDowell
Morgan McDowell5 years ago

Thank you so much!

S. N.
Susan N5 years ago

Interesting article!

Susan O.
Susan O5 years ago

It's quite obvious that these good people weren't Republicans .... :)

tiffany t.
tiffany t5 years ago

of course prehistoric people cared for each other, the only way to survive! the more evolved we become, the more barbaric we seem

Sandra C.
Past Member 5 years ago

And then came the centuries to follow where man makes conscience decisions of "Greed above all" and to "Grab all they can for themselves." They try to tell others like them, in order to justify their lust and love for and of money, it is just. They have educations and the rest (The worker bee) should have gotten one that's why they aren't rich. They want you to forget and over look the fact that many of the "Worker bees" fought in wars (As teenagers) and came home to become "The worker bee" for their corporation(s). Also that the elderly and those in need can fend for themselves. Such a wonderful humane lot they are. Doesn't it make you proud to know the fist thing our Congress is after to cut is Social Security for those who paid into it, as their pension when they became too old to work, that our Congress robbed it in order to pretend they had a balanced budget (Yes they stole the money from Social Security and can't repay what they stole) and now want to cut it for those seniors. Isn't it wonderful that Congress can give themselves raises and COLA anytime they want, UNLESS they vote not to receive said raises. Don't you wish you got a raise let alone be able to VOTE not to receive one?...There has to be the big letter S stamped on our heads to allow this to continue.There is no compassion in our Congress or world. And most are raising selfish children so this behavior will live and continue on.