Disabled History in 80 Objects: 1. The Remains of Disabled Early Humans in Pre-History

Tuesday 26 May 2020

We’re as old as humanity itself. Disabled people.

From Homo Erectus, living two million years ago in Africa and Eurasia, Homo Heidelbergensis down to Homo Sapiens in Africa and Homo Neanderthalensis in Europe and Western Asia about 300,000 years ago, we humans despite our differences developed the compassion and skill to heal and care for disabled individuals with various conditions. A. Bonmati et al 2011 suggest its what unites all of the Homo genus. Life was often difficult and short, but despite this Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals alike helped keep the fragile spark of life alive in those who needed help to keep the flame kindled/flickering. Disabled history, as we’ll learn through each of our 80 objects, was often one of sorrow and pain, but it wasn’t always. If we can look back so far through pre-history’s darkness and see the faint light of compassion and care that enabled disabled individuals to survive in their dangerous world, then we should recognise today it is crucial to what it means for us to be human that we make society accessible for all. We have failed on so many occasions and even today people with varied conditions are excluded and don’t receive the care they require. But we can change this. As it’s at the core of who we have always been. Human history is irrevocably tied to disability and caring for those with them.

If you wish to discover the amazing story of early human relationships with disability and care then one name stands above the rest today: LORNA TILLEY. She has developed the study of this area into a “ bioarchaeology of care” model, detailed in her 2015 volume on this subject. Two branches to this care exist, she argues, first accommodation of the individual. This means they were accepted, tolerated and even treasured in their communities with their different pace and style of living accounted for. In nomadic and active pre-historic life this would have been crucial to their survival. The second part is direct support in which applied practical help and care is delivered to heal or ease suffering. Medicine of sorts would have been used as evidence of herbs, poplar, bitter plants and salicylic acid(active ingredient in Aspirin) show. Tilley has noted that she knows about “30 cases” in which care was needed to survive, but that more are waiting to be described. For Tilley, destroying our flawed belief in how disabled people were treated by early Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals and others is “an emotional experience” full of “awe” as she and her fellow archaeologists attempt to tell these stories “with as much accuracy and humanity” as possible.

An article by Penny Spikins, Andrew Needham, Lorna Tilley and others recently argued that evidence for Neanderthal care and healthcare is widespread and part of their social context of strong pro-social bonds. While Davies and Underdown(2006) have asserted that “extensive intragroup care” would only have existed if the recipients provided a “valuable service” the reality is different. The people whose remains they looked at would have offered no overt benefit through their community caring for them, especially at the end of the person’s life, YET, the remains of the individuals show they received direct care and emotional support even as they died. They also add that the reason that archaeologists until recently had failed to find as many bones with such conditions present, is that most surviving Neanderthal bones are located in rock shelters which preserved them better, but were only accessible by able-bodied agile Neanderthals. Let’s now meet some of our disabled predecessors.

There is a Homo Heidelbergensis child found in Sima de los Huesos, Spain, called Cranium 14, who lived 500,000 years ago. Their skull shows Craniosynostosis which would have caused mental and cognitive disabilities. The child was cared for and lived to 5-8 years.

La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1/Old Man of La Chapelle: Physical disabilities/chronic illness

La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1, or the Old Man of La Chapelle, was a Neanderthal male who died in his 20s-40s, a good age for a Neanderthal, around 50,000-60,000 years ago. He was found by Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie alongside L. Bardon in 1908. This “old” man was the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton found and was located in a limestone bedrock within a cave near La Chapelle-sux-Saints, France. Pierre Marcellin Boule’s reconstruction of him stereotyped Neanderthals for years to come by mistaking his disabled anatomy for the species character as a whole. He believed the individual’s severely curved spine showed that all Neanderthals had a stopped, slouching stance, bent knees, forward flexed hips and head that jutted forward. The man’s low vaulted cranium and brow ridge he saw as a sign of the species’ lack of intelligence. He even argued they had an opposable big toe(Old Man had none) to fit his theory of Neanderthal inferiority and brutishness. It would take until the 1950s when he was re-examined and other remains found for scientists to understand that Old Man was just an example of normal species variation, as in modern humans, who can have a range of disabilities and conditions that give them unique appearances.

Old Man’s disabilities had a significant impact on his life. He had extreme tooth loss, chronic gum disease, temporomandibular joint arthritis, severe osteoarthritis in his lower cervical and upper thoracic vertebrae and degeneration of vertebrae. He had osteoarthritis in both shoulder joints, a rib fracture, degeneration in a right foot joint and severe chronic degeneration osteomyelitis in his left hip. We can tell his teeth fell out over a decade before his death as the bone had grown back along the gums. His care required direct support including fever management, help with hygiene, repositioning and manipulation during flare-ups of infection, and severe pain alongside accommodation such as providing suitable soft food and ensuring he wasn’t left behind when camp moved. His spine and upper body’s disabilities meant he couldn’t have been flexible and strong enough to help hunt or transport items while his lower body, the diseased left hip, worst of his conditions, would have caused significant pain and issues when using his left leg for weight-bearing, balance and mobility. As Spikins et all suggest though he could have processed food, made tools/clothes and done childcare. His localised and systemic infections in his last year would have stopped his ability to contribute, but his care continued and he was buried with respect.

La Ferrassie 1: Physical disabilities/chronic illness

La Ferrassie 1(LF1) in La Ferrassie, France lived around 43,000-45,000 during a later point in the Upper Palaeolithic period. He was old at 40-55 when he died and was found by Louis Capitan and Denis Peyrony in 1909. His skull is the most complete Neanderthal example ever found. He had abscesses on the left of his lower jaw, osteoarthritic changes to his lower spine and right elbow joint, a healed fracture in his right femur and presence of active systemic disease when he died. La Ferrassie seems to have been cared for at two points in life, first when he had a short-term disability caused by a fracture of the greater trochanter of the right femur which impacted leg movement and caused leg/hip pains. He would have needed support for two to three months, as Spikins, Tilley etc suggest. The second time was more serious and involved periostitis(swelling) on the surfaces of his bones. He was probably in the early stage of Hypertrophic Pulmonary Osteoarthropathy with his death taking 2-14 months. Symptoms would have include lethargy, fatigue, sleep problems, localised/general pains and discomforts, appetite and weight loss, fevers and more. Ferrassie would have been dependent on others for food, immobile, tired and in constant pain. Dedicated care would have been essential. His burial like his care was complex showing the compassion of his Neanderthal community.

Shanidar 1/Nandy: Physical and Sensory Disabilities/Chronic illness/Possible Amputation

Shanidar 1, nicknamed Nandy by his excavators, is an incredible Neanderthal individual whose discover in 1957 by Ralph Solecki began to change our views on Palaeolithic disability care. This male lived 45,000-35,0000 years ago and was around 50. He was buried with others in what is now Shanidar Cave, in the Erbil Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. A blow to the head in his youth damaged his left eye, maybe blinding him, and the part of the brain controlling his right side, so he developed a withered right arm and potential paralysis which would have crippled his left leg too. He might have had this limb amputated but it’s unclear if it was his condition or this procedure which made it so short. His healed fracture on his middle foot bones express his limp would have been even more significant, and as discovered in 2017 by Rosenberg, Trinkaus and Villotte, he was also deaf on top of this causing significant sensory deprivation. A man of his age with these symptoms would have needed significant accommodation and direct support and it seems he received it.

Romito 2: Dwarfism

The examination of remains in Riparo del Romito, Calabria, Southern Italy shows an Epigravettian (10,000-21000 years old) burial, with parietal art, of different people. Romino 2, a boy who died around seventeen, is especially important. His skeleton shows that he had a (rare even today) mesomelic form of dwarfism which would have been visible from birth and would not have impacted his intelligence or caused serious medical issues. His growth would have been severely impacted though with adult heights usually only around 3-4 ft and his elbow mobility would have been restricted. Romito 2 would have been able to look after himself but would have needed accommodation and acceptance, something he seems to have received. He lived to seventeen and his burial was in a social ritual centre signifying he and the others with him were socially important. As the next remains of someone with dwarfism are 5000 years more recent, Rominito 2 is the earliest person with dwarfism found so far.

Burial 9: Paralysis/ Physical Disability

In Vietnam’s Man Bac, the remains of a young man called Burial 9 shows an individual buried in a fetal position due to his fused vertebrae and brittle bones that left him hunched over. This was likely caused by Klippel-Feil syndrome, a congenital disorder, which paralysed him from the waist downwards, stopped use of his arms and would have made feeding and cleaning himself impossible. He lived ten years after the onset of his paralysis though and his remains show us that even severely paralysed individuals received compassionate care.

Windover Boy: Spina Bifida

A more recent individual found is a Homo Sapien boy who, 7500 years ago, lived and died in Archaic Florida. His remains at the Windover, Florida site show he lived until 15 years old while dealing with Spina Bifida. He also had malformed zygapophyses, a severe infection of the right tibia and fibula, and atrophy of the long bones. Neural tube deficit would have caused sensory deprivation, loss of mobility, ulceration and infections. Other minor conditions would have impacted him too.

Although these disabled individuals lived so long before any of us, it’s incredible to learn how they would have navigated their world and know they were accepted and provided for, whether Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals or other. We’re going to see many different locations, objects and historical disabled individuals on our 80 stop journey, but starting like this makes it clear how disability has shaped communities and civilisations since pre-history. Across the Homo genus. Being human is caring for and accommodating those with disabilities. It’s not excluding and making the world inaccessible for non-able-bodied or neurodivergent people.

Looking into the ancient past at these people we are taught a lesson about who we all are….and who we should be.

Vincenzo Formicola, “From the Sunghir Children to
the Romito Dwarf: Aspects of the Upper Paleolithic Funerary Landscape”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 48, No. 3 (June 2007), pp. 446-453

“Compassion For People With Disabilities Shown In Ancient Bones”, Wheelchair Accessibility Blog And Disability News, 2018 <https://www.amsvans.com/…/compassion-for-people-with-disab…/&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Penny Spikins, Andrew Needham and Lorna Tilley et al, “Calculated or caring? : Neanderthal healthcare in social context”, World Archaeology, ISSN 1470-1375

Mark Richardson, Cheating Death in Pre-History: Pathology, Trauma, Disability and Care During the Archaic Period in North Alabama, thesis, Master of Arts, University of Alabama, (2017)

Gizmodo.Com, 2018 <https://gizmodo.com/neanderthals-with-disabilities-survived…&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Jean-Jacques Hublin, “The Prehistory of Compassion”, PNAS, April 2009, 106 (16), pp. 6429-6430

“Ancient Bones Show That Caring For The Disabled Is As Old As Society Itself”, Medical Daily, 2018 <https://www.medicaldaily.com/ancient-bones-show-caring-disa…&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

D.N Dickel and G.H Doran, “Severe neural tube defect syndrome from the early archaic of Florida”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol.80, Issue 3, (November, 1989)

David W. Frayer et al, “Dwarfism in an Adolescent from the Italian late Upper Palaeolithic, Nature, Vol.330, (November,1987), pp.60-62

“Compassion For People With Disabilities Shown In Ancient Bones”, Wheelchair Accessibility Blog And Disability News, 2018 <https://www.amsvans.com/…/compassion-for-people-with-disab…/&gt; [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Gracia et al, “Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (2009)

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