Ancient Bones That Tell a Story of Compassion
DISABLED Almost all the other skeletons at the Man Bac site, south of Hanoi, are straight. But the man now called Burial 9 was laid to rest curled in a fetal position that suggests lifelong paralysis.
And 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 Ms. Tilley, a graduate student in archaeology, and Dr. 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.
“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.”
This case, and other similar, if less extreme examples of illness and disability, have prompted Ms. Tilley and Dr. 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 archaeologists described the extent of Burial 9’s disability in a paper inAnthropological Science in 2009. Two years later, they returned to the case to address the issue of health care head on. “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.
And earlier this year, in proposing what she calls a “bioarchaeology of care,” Ms. Tilley wrote that this field of study “has the potential to provide important — and possibly unique — insights into the lives of those under study.” In the case of Burial 9, she 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.
“I’m obviously not the first archaeologist” to notice evidence of people who needed help to survive in stone age or other early cultures, she said. Nor does her method “come out of the blue.” It is based on and extends previous work.
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 theoriginal 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.
Ms. Tilley gained her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1982 and worked in the health care industry studying treatment outcomes before coming to the study of archaeology. She said her experience influenced her interest in ancient health care.
What she proposes, in papers with Dr. Oxenham and in a dissertation in progress, is a standard four-stage method for studying ancient remains of disabled or ill individuals with an eye to understanding their societies. She sets up several stages of investigation: first, establishing what was wrong with a person; second, describing the impact of the illness or disability given the way of life followed in that culture; and third, concluding what level of care would have needed.