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Compassion may be in our bones

by Michelle K. Wolf

December 27, 2012 | 12:12 am

Were all pre-modern humans brutish and nasty? Were the ill and disabled dispatched to their fate in the wilderness for the “greater good’? I shuddered when I first read that in ancient Sparta, the high priest inspected every newborn and if the child had a disability of any kind, the authorities killed the child immediately.

But the past isn’t completely dismal. A friend sent me a link to a fascinating recent story in the New York Times titled, “Ancient Bones That Tell the Story of Compassion” that discusses how archaeologists have found evidence in human bones that at least in some places in the world, people with life-long disabilities were taken care of by others.

In the area of present-day northern Vietnam, two archaeologists from the Australian National University in Canberra found one skeleton around 4,000 years old buried in a fetal position. All the other skeletons were found laid out straight. Upon further investigation, it became clear that this adult had been severely physically disabled for at least a decade.

“His fused vertebrae, weak bones and other evidence suggested that he lies in death as he did in life, bent and crippled by disease… 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. “

And this wasn’t the only isolated example. Other archaeologists have unearthed similar stories told by the bones left behind, such as 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. (Spina Bifida is a neural tube defect in which the bones of the spine do not completely form, resulting in an incomplete spinal canal.)

I was deeply moved by reading this article and hope you will be too. With all the darkness and cruelty that we’ve been witnessing in this, our “modern” era, maybe we need to go back in time to find the communal kindness of humanity.

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