Compassion for People with Disabilities Shown in Ancient Bones

In today's world, caring for loved ones with disabilities or illness is a given. Archeologists are learning that prehistoric people also cared for their sick and disabled in a similar manner. Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham of Australian National University recently unearthed the 4,000 year old remains of an ill young man. The burial site was found in what is now Northern Vietnam at a site known as Man Bac. The young man is referred to as Burial 9. What is so unique about their discovery is the position in which he was buried. While all of the other remains found at the burial site were laid to rest straight, Burial 9 is resting on his side, in a fetal position.

Upon closer inspection, Tilley and Oxenham found that he had fused vertebrae, weak bones, and other signs that he was likely paralyzed from the waist down before his teen years by a disease known as Klippel-Feil syndrome. The disease would have left him disabled, with little use of his arms, meaning he relied on someone else to feed and care for him. And he lived another ten years, so his family or community must have provided for him. "There's an emotional experience in excavating any human being, a feeling of awe," Ms. Tilley said, and a responsibility "to tell the story with as much accuracy and humanity as we can."

Ms. Tilley is not the first archeologist to suggest evidence of people who depended on others for care surviving into adulthood in the Stone Age. She knows of "about 30 cases in which the disease or pathology was so severe, they must have had care in order to survive." And she said there are certainly more such cases to be described. "I am totally confident that there are almost any number of case studies where direct support or accommodation was necessary."

Some of the more notable discoveries include a Neanderthal, known as Shanidar 1, who was found in Iraq. His remains are estimated to be more than 45,000 years old. He had an amputated limb, loss of vision in one eye, and other injuries, yet he lived to be about 50 years old.

There is also the case of the 7,500-year-old remains of a boy, who lived to around age 15 despite being born with spina bifida. Known as Windover boy, he was discovered near Titusville, FL and prompted Florida State University archeologists to conclude that, "under some conditions life 7,500 years ago included an ability and willingness to help and sustain the chronically ill and handicapped."

Romito 2, a teenage boy found in Italy, dates back some 10,000 years. His remains showed a severe form of dwarfism that caused very short arms. His people were hunters, so they would have had to provide his food, at least, and accept that he could not keep up with the others in the community physically.

Before reading this, what did you think became of prehistoric people who were born with or developed disabilities? Source: Image sources: