The Archeology of Care: Disabilities in Pre-History

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The New York Times is reporting the results of a dig near Hanoi that indicates a culture of care in a 4,000 year old prehistoric society. The man, called Burial 9, is the only person buried in a fetal position, with all others being laid out straight. Upon investigation into the bones of the corpse, it was discovered that the young man had become paralyzed before adolescence due to Klippel-Feil syndrome. The result was a need of direct care, as he could not feed himself.

The article continues on to outline additional archeological evidence of caring for those who were disabled either congenitally or as a result of injuries. The archeology of care outlines a debilitating illness or disability, the impact that disability would have in their society, the level of required care in the given society, and then using all these clues to get a more complete social picture of the community.

What's interesting is the level of care given to those with disabilities, at least those documented, in archeology. Often the children, many of whom lived well into their teens with their disability or illness, were well-cared for through their lives. They possessed the care necessary to survive, and the will to survive, both of which showed that they were tolerated within their family or social groups.

It's interesting, when looking back from the point of view of a parent with children who are disabled, to see how the past had treated their own. It's not conclusively proven of course, but it's easy to imagine these smaller communities being large family groups, or being closely tied through family connections. It would explain the willingness to sacrifice their optimum survival in order to accommodate someone who had been born with or had through injury developed a disability.

So how do they know about disabilities? It's all in reading the bones. This, of course, means they were focusing on physical disabilities, or illnesses that can leave bone traces. Those with physical deformities are one thing, but those who contract an illness like polio only show their illness through lack of buildup around muscle to bone connection points. Weakness there, and decreased bone size indicate little to no activity.