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22 December 2012
Ancient humans cared for sick and disabled

Some archaeologists are suggesting a closer, more systematic look at how prehistoric people - who may have left only their bones - treated illness, injury and incapacitation. Call it the archaeology of health care. The case that led Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham of Australian National University in Canberra to this idea is that of a profoundly ill young man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam and was buried, as were others in his culture, at a site known as Man Bac.
     Almost all the other skeletons at the site, south of Hanoi and about 15 miles from the coast, lie straight. Burial 9, as both the remains and the once living person are known, was laid to rest curled in the fetal position. When Tilley, a graduate student in archaeology, and Oxenham, a professor, excavated and examined the skeleton in 2007 it became clear why. His fused vertebrae, weak bones and other evidence suggested that he lies in death as he did in life, bent and crippled by disease.
     They gathered that he became paralyzed from the waist down before adolescence, the result of a congenital disease known as Klippel-Feil syndrome. He had little, if any, use of his arms and could not have fed himself or kept himself clean. But he lived another 10 years or so. They concluded that the people around him who had no metal and lived by fishing, hunting and raising barely domesticated pigs, took the time and care to tend to his every need.
     This case, and other similar, if less extreme examples of illness and disability, have prompted Tilley and Oxenham to ask what the dimensions of such a story are, what care for the sick and injured says about the culture that provided it. "The provision and receipt of health care may therefore reflect some of the most fundamental aspects of a culture," the two archaeologists wrote in The International Journal of Paleopathology. In the case of Burial 9, Tilley says, not only does his care indicate tolerance and cooperation in his culture but suggests that he himself had a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live. Without that, she says, he could not have stayed alive. 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."

Edited from The New York Times, Denverpost (18 December 2012)

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