Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Care in Ancient Societies

By Michael Cook

Archaeologists are documenting evidence that ancient humans cared for disabled members of their community.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

End-of-life care is a phrase associated with gurgling tubes, beeping monitors and flashing lights. But a fledging sub­specialty of archaeology is examining how early humans cared for the disabled in their communities.

A recent paper in the International Journal of Paleopathology has documented the life of a young man who lived in northern Vietnam 3700–4500 years ago. “M9”, as archeologists have named him, was paralysed from the waist down and would have had very limited upper body mobility yet he apparently lived into his early thirties.

How was survival possible in a subsistence Neolithic community? The answer was around-the-clock, high quality personal care according to Lorna Tilley, a PhD student at the Australian National University. This would have included regular bathing, toileting, massaging and turning to avoid pressure sores.

Tilley and her co-author, Marc F. Oxenham, make some interesting observations about the ethics of care. In modern society, people with extreme disability often succumb to depression, sometimes resulting in suicide – and this can occur indirectly by refusing care. In a Neolithic community, depression would have been lethal.

Tilley says that M9’s survival therefore meant that the young man must have lived in “a secure, emotionally-supportive, inclusive environment in which care was provided ungrudgingly, enabling M9...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.