Saturday, 19 January 2013

Disability in Prehistory

In recent years archeologists have been unearthing remains that demonstrate that at least in certain prehistoric communities it was routine to care for severely disabled people. (Dettwyler 1991)(Tilley and Oxenham 2011).
Our picture of Neolithic peoples as 'savages' needs to change
Kristina Chew has summarised some of the fossil finds in this article:5 Prehistoric People 
  • 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.”

  • Read more:

    The latest find is of the 4000 year old remains from Man Bac in Vietman:
    This boy had fused vertebrae, weak bones and would have been unable to walk or use his arms from adolescence. The evidence shows that he had Klippel Fell Syndrome, yet he lived for another 10 years.

    Tilley says she knows of at least 30 skeletons “in which the disease or pathology was so severe, they must have had care in order to survive".

    Today many assert that the fact that poor sick and disabled people receive welfare support is a sign of Western ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’ as a society, or even a luxury we can now afford thanks to economic development (for example Zhang & Song 2012), that the right to support with health may even be a ‘Western imperialist’ idea (Matheson D. 2009).
    This fossil evidence of ancient welfare practices undermines such self-congratulatory assumptions.
    We can assume that life was tough for these communities, they faced predation from wolves and tigers, some did not yet have agriculture, and lived by gathering and hunting, the idea of a 'state' had not yet been thought of, though neither did they have bankers and multinationals demanding that society's resources should be directed at them.

    The resources they had were very precious to them, and they used them to make sure that every member of their community was supported to live as well as they could.
    When politicians start to use rhetoric about 'scroungers', 'skivers' and 'burdens' (and politicians of all the main parties are guilty of this) they show in many ways that our society values humanity less than we once did. When we segregate people, when we create disempowering places like Winterbourne View, when we invalidate people's voices, treat them as 'other' and fail to listen to what they're saying with their eyes, bodies and behaviours as well as their words, we show that we're not listening, not valuing, not being human,  
    It was the fact we valued all human beings that enabled our species to survive those tough prehistoric times and begin to build civilisation. But as I was asked on twitter recently: "Are we civilised now?"

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