45,000 years of caring for the disabled

Klippel–Feil syndrome is rare and it likely doesn't describe one single disorder. Instead, it's more of a catch-all, a name for a variety of conditions that all share one common feature — being born with some of the vertebrae in the neck fused together.

Besides that, Klippel-Feil syndrome is pretty diverse. It's associated with a wide variety of birth defects that not everyone with the syndrome has. So it's hard to say what an absolute outcome for Klippel-Feil would be. But, for one man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam, Klippel-Feil syndrome likely meant complete paralysis of the lower half of his body. There's a good chance his arms were at least partly paralyzed, as well. His head would have been torqued to the right. It was probably hard for him to chew. Basically, he couldn't have easily kept himself alive with no help

And yet, this man — known as Burial 9 — lived into adulthood. Discovered in 2009, he is only one of a collection of prehistoric burials demonstrating that, even while living under harsh conditions, our ancestors went out of their way to care for people who couldn't care for themselves and make space in the community for people who had to live differently than the norm. In the New York Times, James Gorman writes about this archaeology of compassion:

Among archaeological finds, she said, she knows “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.”

Such cases include at least one Neanderthal, Shanidar 1, from a site in Iraq, dating to 45,000 years ago, who died around age 50 with one arm amputated, loss of vision in one eye and other injuries. Another is Windover boy from about 7,500 years ago, found in Florida, who had a severe congenital spinal malformation known as spina bifida, and lived to around age 15. D. N. Dickel and G. H. Doran, from Florida State University wrote the original paper on the case in 1989, and they concluded that contrary to popular stereotypes of prehistoric people, “under some conditions life 7,500 years ago included an ability and willingness to help and sustain the chronically ill and handicapped.”

In another well-known case, the skeleton of a teenage boy, Romito 2, found at a site in Italy in the 1980s, and dating to 10,000 years ago, showed a form of severe dwarfism that left the boy with very short arms. His people were nomadic and they lived by hunting and gathering. He didn’t need nursing care, but the group would have had to accept that he couldn’t run at the same pace or participate in hunting in the same way others did.

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    1.  Not to mention if we agreed in a nonbinding treaty to meet our own standards of care for them, we’d lose our sovereignty to the New World Order.

      1. Glad to see he’s been suspended and his party has disavowed him in no uncertain terms.  He also argued for “killing grandma” at the other end of the life cycle….so maybe all the Tea Partiers over here should look to the UK for proof of their fears.

          1. Ahh….I don’t follow UK politics as much anymore.  So, this guy is too radioactive for UKIP, huh?  We have a few of those, too.

  1. 236 years after the official start of our nation, and the US as a society is still not as civilized as Neanderthals were?

  2. Maybe they didn’t think abled and disabled butdifferently abled. No-one is simply a recipient of care.

    1. I don’t think they had enough activists to teach them to be sensitive to the feelings of the differently abled.  The activist class doesn’t arise until some time after the domestication of wheat.  Also, I think sensitivity training post-dates Lascaux.

      1. No. But they might not have thought in terms of able bodied and disabled. If you do not have complete use of your legs you can develop other essential skills such as drumming or storytelling. It could be quite simply a natural economic calculation making full use of all human resources available. This doesn’t stop anyone leaving granny out in the cold to feed the wolves when she can no longer even sew.
        The mediaeval Christian development of the Western sense of compassion requires us first of all to create others who suffer and are deserving of compassion and then to punish them properly (to make absolutely sure that they are truly deserving of compassion). There are infinite ways of making the suffering of The Son of Man real.

  3. Discovered in 2009, he is only one of a collection of prehistoric burials demonstrating that, even while living under harsh conditions, our ancestors went out of their way to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves and make space in the community for people who had to live differently than the norm.

    Not directly relevant to the topic at hand, but I’m always a little bothered at the Discovery Channel Cave-man vision of prehistoric human life: nasty brutish and short with dumbfuck hominids bumbling around: falling off of rocks, being hunted by ferrets and constantly living on the brink of starvation.

    So far as we can tell (and most modern stone age cultures suggest) prehistoric people lived pretty comfortably.  They ate well, and while they probably had to be substantially more active than us, but were not subject to the constant toil of later agrarian living.

    You have to remember that this is genus that began a wave of extinctions from pretty much the moment it figured out how to use sticks and sharp rocks, and had the time to figure out things like dentistry about 9000 years ago.

  4. Is it only me that read it and thought “Cared for them for what?” People can give care to those who need “accommodations” but it doesn’t mean it was with altruistic intent or any intent that we would recognize as compassionate. Maybe I have worked in too many nursing homes.

      1. Any one and more of the following, status, money, power, things that objectify, rather than empathize, or combination of these and the above. Its that we can’t know from the evidence what the subjective purpose was for the care, its just evidence that they were cared for.

      2. A plausible thing that occurs to me is that people with certain physical abnormalities could have been seen as having spiritual powers.  Born with them to boot, as opposed to acquiring them via a “traditional” shaman route.

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