The ethics of care in the Neolithic Age

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.

An article in the New York Times this week highlighted the life of a young man in northern Vietnam between 3,700 to 4,500 years ago. “M9” as archeologists have named him, was paralyzed from the waist down and would have had very limited upper body mobility. Yet he apparently lived into his early 30s.

How was survival possible in a subsistence Neolithic community? The answer, writes Lorna Tilley, of Australian National University, in the International Journal of Paleopathology was round-the-clock, high quality personal care. This would have included regular bathing, toileting, massaging, and turning to avoid pressure sores.

Ms Tilley and her co-author make some interesting observations about the ethics of care. In modern society, people with extreme disability often succumb to depression, sometimes resulting in suicide either directly, or indirectly by refusing care. In a Neolithic community depression would have been lethal.

Survival, therefore, meant that the young man lived in “a secure, emotionally-supportive, inclusive environment in which care was provided ungrudgingly, enabling M9 to grow to adulthood, to develop a role for himself within the group, to retain a sense of self-respect, and to interact with others in his community at whatever level was possible. In view of the prolonged and particularly demanding nature of the care provided, it seems justifiable to speculate that the carers’ motivations included compassion, respect and affection.”

As for M9 himself, the “bioarcheologists” suggest that he must have had a remarkable personality. “M9’s prolonged survival with disability suggests an extraordinarily strong will to live; a robust psychological adaptation; a self-esteem capable of overcoming the complete loss of independence; and a personality capable of inspiring others to maintain high quality and costly care over time.”

This is not the only example of a prehistoric ethic of care. A Neanderthal who lived in Iraq 45,000 years ago survived cranial trauma, amputation of his right arm, other injuries and osteomyelitis thanks to the care of his community. A skeleton dating back 10,000 years ago in Calabria exhibited signs of severe dwarfism. Since the young man would not have been able to keep up with other tribesmen in searching for food, his companions must have accommodated his handicaps. 

This article is published by Michael Cook and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

comments powered by Disqus

 Search BioEdge

 Subscribe to BioEdge newsletter
rss Subscribe to BioEdge RSS feed

 Recent Posts
If you can change your sex, why can’t you change your age?
24 Mar 2019
Are Western scientists crossing their fingers when they damn He Jiankui?
24 Mar 2019
We don’t want to pay for oldies, say Belgians
24 Mar 2019
Royal College of Physicians goes neutral on assisted dying
24 Mar 2019
AJOB debates withdrawing and withholding
24 Mar 2019

Home | About Us | Contact Us | rss RSS | Archive | Bookmark and Share |

BioEdge - New Media Foundation Ltd © 2004 - 2019