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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An Ancient Skull Makes Me Think

It is not often anthropologists make the news and when they do it is usually an archaeologist. Today was one of those days when yet another archaeologist gets all the glory, a headline, and we cultural anthropologists are left to ponder the larger significance of their find. Here I am referring to a report published by researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A newly reconstructed child's skull of a prehistoric human who lived 530,000 years ago indicates the child had a profound cognitive disability. It is estimated the child reached the age of five years. In reconstructing the skull from many pieces researchers determined the child had craniosynostosis, a debilitating genetic disorder in which pieces of the skull fuse too quickly causing pressure to build in the brain. It is impossible to know the level to which the child was cognitively disabled but it would have been significant and required "large amounts of extra care from the prehistorical human community". The original report is not exactly a page turner but that one sentence got me thinking.

530,000 years ago prehistoric humans had a child. How we care for others, the sick, elderly and disabled, is thought to be uniquely human. This is part of who we are, a measure of our very humanity. Researchers will never be able to determine if the child in question born so very long ago was well cared for or loved. Researchers will never know what sort of society this child lived in or how these prehistoric humans lived their daily lives. This is exactly why I gave up my first love of archaeology--there were just too few answers for so many excellent thought provoking questions. But on this dreary day I cannot help but wonder about this child's life. What sort of life did this child's parent have? What did they expect when the child was born? What did they think when routine developmental stages were not reached? Did they worry? Did society support their child? Was there any stigma attached to the child when it was obvious something was profoundly wrong?

The above questions puzzle me. We have proof a child, a prehistoric human, had a profound cognitive disability 530,000 years ago. Here I sit, pun intended, over half a million years later and we as humans have yet to acknowledge the humanity of those whose bodies do not work as they were designed. We need laws such as the ADA to protect the civil rights of people with a disability. We relegate too many people with cognitive disabilities to a life in an institution. We ship off the elderly to nursing homes when their minds and bladders begin to fail. We pass assisted suicide laws in state after state and insurance companies quickly figure out how to cover this sort of "health care". We cut service to disabled people when budgets get tight. We ignore a global problem that has cost the lives of untold numbers of people with disabilities. Surely we humans, even at a time of great economic despair, can do much better given the fact we have had 530,000 years to work on this human rights issue.


Ettina said...

It's interesting to think that just because we're not talked about sometimes doesn't mean we haven't been around for a very long time.

Gnarlodious said...

Of course, they didn't have money, HMOs or the Profit Motive...

Anthropologically speaking, the only species who were able to evolve were the ones who had a nurturant social system. This is due to the phenomenon of Neoteny, in which the next more advanced species is in its infancy ever more disabled than its progenitor. Species that are rigid and neglect their most dependent tend to stagnate evolutionarily, because their pedomorphic members die off before reaching sexual maturity.

Meanwhile, humans look around scratching their collective heads wondering why evolution is not happening. The reason is obvious. Considering our precociousness in other areas, our social system is vastly retarded compared to other primates.