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Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene
April 3, 2009 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans cared for disabled children.
posted by homunculus (54 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans cared for disabled children. were humans.
posted by collywobbles at 2:49 PM on April 3, 2009 [10 favorites]


becuse these babby cant frigth back...
posted by mazola at 2:50 PM on April 3, 2009 [10 favorites]


This is cool news. I've read of rudimentary burials that indicate a belief in the afterlife, or at least a significant realization of the importance of the individual and his place in the group; and of physical damage (broken bones) that healed enough to show that a seriously wounded individual was kept alive by the group when it would have been easier to let them die and not be a burden.

But this news of respect and care for a person who, at such a young age, probably didn't contribute much to the group while taking resources is awesome.
posted by Science! at 2:51 PM on April 3, 2009


I'll bet that poor kid was laughing his ass off all day long.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:52 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not my field, by a long shot, but even "suggests" seems like too strong a word to me. Maybe "raises the possibility." For all we know this kid was the only one that didn't get left to the elements.

I'm with DeGusta (from the last link.)
"We just know that this individual survived. We don't know the circumstances," he said. "I'm not saying their interpretation is unreasonable, but we're trying to do science, so we have to ask, 'How would we know that we were wrong?'"
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:53 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pater Aletheias: "Not my field, by a long shot, but even "suggests" seems like too strong a word to me. Maybe "raises the possibility." For all we know this kid was the only one that didn't get left to the elements.

I'm with DeGusta (from the last link.)
"We just know that this individual survived. We don't know the circumstances," he said. "I'm not saying their interpretation is unreasonable, but we're trying to do science, so we have to ask, 'How would we know that we were wrong?'"
"

Yeah, you're right. But it's a beautiful day today and I'm not on the research team, so I'll be ignorantly happy about this.
posted by Science! at 2:56 PM on April 3, 2009


A face skull only a mother could love...
posted by Smarson at 2:57 PM on April 3, 2009


Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans cared for disabled children were humans didn't fear all deformations as abominations before god(s), punishable by death.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:00 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


So even cavemen - literally! - got a thing for altruism? Suck on that lollipop, randians!
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:02 PM on April 3, 2009


Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans were humans.

Not really. Anthropologists find that killing disabled neonates is the rule, not the exception in most early forms of society. "Primitive" humans don't believe life begins at conception. They don't even believe it begins at birth. I happen to share this viewpoint.

This new finding is for homo habilis, by the way, which is a very early, mostly chimp-brained form of human.
posted by dgaicun at 3:05 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Maybe they considered the child a special gift from their deity. Maybe it was a chief's child and everybody had to pretend it was just fine. Maybe it was just fine and merely had a funny-shaped head. Maybe it was the life of the party.
posted by longsleeves at 3:06 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, sucks to your science. I believes what I wants to believes.
posted by collywobbles at 3:06 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe it was the life of the party.

I don't think they partied back then.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:07 PM on April 3, 2009


This is the take-home point here:
But Stanford University anthropologist David DeGusta points out that several species of primates have been observed to care for abnormal young. That's a different type of behavior, he said, from adults caring for other adults.

"The survival of an infant with significant pathology has been observed in a range of primate species," he wrote in an e-mail to Wired.com. "Extra caregiving behavior towards such infants has been documented in wild monkeys. Caring for infants is, after all, a key adaptation of mammals in general."

Several studies have shown that young, deformed primates were cared for by their mothers anyway, he said. For example, a 1973 paper reported that blind macaque infants were cared for by their mothers for up to a year.

. . .

DeGusta also had a more methodological objection to many studies that attempt to infer behavior from skeletal remains.

"We just know that this individual survived. We don't know the circumstances," he said. "I'm not saying their interpretation is unreasonable, but we're trying to do science, so we have to ask, 'How would we know that we were wrong?'"
posted by The Michael The at 3:09 PM on April 3, 2009


I don't think they partied back then.

What are you basing that on? Cite some prehistoric party research.
posted by longsleeves at 3:15 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


So, at the risk of sounding kind mean, how would you tell a mentally handicapped caveman/homo habilis from a normal one? I mean, by modern standards there wasn't a lot of abstract reasoning going on and there are lots of mentally disabled people around today who would be fine if they never needed to read, write or do anything mentally complex. Maybe this kid seemed like any other kid to them.
posted by GuyZero at 3:19 PM on April 3, 2009


If pre-human and post-human primates had not cared for monstrously disabled offspring, could "fortunate monsters" such as ourselves ever have evolved?
posted by jamjam at 3:20 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anthropologists find that killing disabled neonates is the rule

I thought that S. Pinker NYT magazine article was pretty weak: he offers no evidence or citations to back up his claim that: In most societies documented by anthropologists, including those of hunter-gatherers (our best glimpse into our ancestors' way of life), a woman lets a newborn die when its prospects for survival to adulthood are poor.

Not only is "survival to adulthood" vague, but the existence of neonticide does not prove that such a practice was widespread among early humans. Did it happen? Sure, since it still happens today (although it happens rarely). But to determine the frequency of such a thing, and the important relative context, would seem difficult if not impossible. At the very least I think it might be a contested topic among specialists, since so much would depend on conjecture.

In my view the main reason that the possibility that our ancestors sometimes cared for the disabled seems striking to some is a kind of reverse confirmation bias due to numerous long-standing ideological preconceptions about ancient humans as brute, compassionless "savages."
posted by ornate insect at 3:22 PM on April 3, 2009


It's fascinating how such thin evidence gets turned into conclusions, that then get translated to the layman as scientific facts. The same kind of thing happens with the dinosaurs.
posted by smackfu at 3:30 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Atapuerca in Spain, the dig site where this skull was found, has a short page on Wikipedia. There, in reference to another (admittedly earlier) find of bones, it says:

About 25% of the human remains found here showed the first evidence of cannibalism.

Yes, you are thinking what I'm thinking.
posted by Sova at 3:31 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


In my view the main reason that the possibility that our ancestors sometimes cared for the disabled seems striking to some is a kind of reverse confirmation bias due to numerous long-standing ideological preconceptions about ancient humans as brute, compassionless "savages."

Having less of a society, brutishly efficient. Elders were revered for survival.
posted by Mblue at 3:35 PM on April 3, 2009


The Elders are old, like 26.
posted by Artw at 3:38 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I believe I sad , brutishly efficient.
posted by Mblue at 3:43 PM on April 3, 2009


Here's another take on it:

Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans feared the head-exploding wrath of their own psychically gifted children.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 3:55 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Those were some noble savages!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:57 PM on April 3, 2009


I knew it, you guys! DURC WAS REAL
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 4:01 PM on April 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


What are you basing that on? Cite some prehistoric party research.

Brute et. al suggest in their seminal paper "Ergh Grunt Hoot Hoot" that banging rocks together did not start until well into the Neolithic Age, or "New Stone" era of history, when progressive rock bands like Yes and Jethro Tull emerged from the murky caves of Angleland.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:06 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


That's actually the plot of Voice of Fire.
posted by Artw at 4:08 PM on April 3, 2009


Now, do we know for sure that it was cavemen who took care of this child, and not the star creatures who taught cavemen to build pyramids?
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:14 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


There is ample fossil evidence to back up my claim, too: gold- and silver-plated disc artifacts found buried in dusty record company offices in Olde Londonium, and the musicians themselves, recently dug up at state fairs across the northern reaches of the New World.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:19 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Apparently the Rolling Stones did not get started until the late Neolithic, when rock polishing tools and techniques were sophisticated enough to make spherical or obloid shapes. This is all documented on Wikipedia.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:20 PM on April 3, 2009


Cite some prehistoric party research.


Ancient Irish breweries.
posted by mannequito at 4:28 PM on April 3, 2009


I don't think they partied back then.

It is well known that partied on shrooms!
posted by homunculus at 4:37 PM on April 3, 2009


that they partied...
posted by homunculus at 4:45 PM on April 3, 2009


Deformed skull of prehistoric five-to-eight year old child suggests that early humans who knew thirty other people in their lives didn't have enough experience with a particular obscure and rare deforming disease to realize that a child with that disease would not be able to pull his own weight or help support the tribe upon adulthood and so therefore did not abandon said child to die by exposure or starvation until the child was old enough that it became clear that the child would in fact not be able to pull his own weight or help support the tribe upon adulthood

(I'm not saying that's what happened, but whoever wrote the headline did a whole lotta assuming)
posted by Flunkie at 4:53 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


there have been other remains suggesting that early humans cared for elderly adults with infirmity as well. Skeletal remains of adults that suggest the individual would not have been able to survive without direct assistance from others.

It is interesting that people seem to start with the assumption that early humans of course didn't care for the sick and evidence that may point to the contrary is seen as surprising/counter-intuitive.
posted by edgeways at 5:09 PM on April 3, 2009


*bangs rocks together on one leg*
posted by adamdschneider at 5:10 PM on April 3, 2009


It's fascinating how such thin evidence gets turned into conclusions, that then get translated to the layman as scientific facts. The same kind of thing happens with the dinosaurs.

I think movies and cartoons ruined (improved?) dinosaurs for most people. Maybe the transmogrification would follow this line: thin scientific evidence presented in mass media -> sketchy movie plot synopsis presented to studio -> studio enhances film with action scenes and re-working dinosaur capabilities -> velociraptors get scaled up.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:12 PM on April 3, 2009


That this seems remarkable to anyone strikes me as, well, remarkable. Maternal and paternal instincts towards protecting children are extremely strong, of necessity. The countering instincts can all be summarized as responses to lack of resources. Leaving the child to die isn't done for dislike of the child, although a sense of such--the instinct of disgust--would make it easier. It's done for the sake of the rest of the group, including and especially the siblings of the disabled child.

The same applies to every child-caring animal, and to us today. If a deformed or otherwise disabled child is born to a mother, or in many species, to a pair or a tribe, who feels able to support it, then the child will be protected and raised. Resources will be given to it. It will be loved, if you like; I see no reason to assume that a cat does not feel the same love in her feline mind for her kittens as a human mother for her babies, as the underlying biochemical mechanisms are much the same. She won't be as able to extrapolate and examine it; just act on it. What she feels for the runt she abandons is, I speculate, a mix of love and disgust that in the end tips over into disgust.

It would be interesting (if dubiously ethical) to examine human mothers' attitudes to children, especially disabled children, in low-resource situations - whether she feels a sense of disgust for them, leading to their abandonment or neglect. Especially in the context of cultural attitudes to promote the sense of disgust at the child for burdening the community (Sparta, Communist China, out-of-wedlock children in Victorian England) or promote the sense of love for the child as an individual not responsible for his/her condition and circumstances (generally speaking, modern Western nations).

It's nice to be able to clearly point out to ways in which we do, without regard to cultural relativism, exceed the moral standards of earlier cultures; but it's worrying to consider that we only do so due to greater resources.

Back to resources: if this was the disabled child of a chief, or king-priest, or daughter of the tribe's best hunter, or whoever, or if this was a child born to one of those fortunate human groups who found themselves among abundant resources, then of course the child would have been raised and kept as long as he/she could survive. To adulthood if possible, and if he/she could not be a mother or a warrior or whatever the social role appropriate to him/her would be (almost all human societies everywhere and everywhen have assigned future social roles to individuals very soon after their birth, ours is a very new and rare exception), then he/she would take up, or be put into (where to draw the line between individual desire and social desire is very fuzzy) some other role: corn-grinder, rock-gatherer, shaman, cook, watcher for danger, etc. The tribe invests resources in the person, without really consciously deciding to do so, and gets a return of some kind out of them.

Perhaps when certain resource threshholds are met, more return can be gotten from more people, with different abilities and inclinations. A wandering tribe of hunter-gatherers in a hostile land needs warriors, mothers, watchers, lore-keepers, but not much else - it's difficult for the intellectually and physically disabled person to return enough to the tribe to make his/her keep worthwhile. Is this a conscious decision that the tribe makes as such, or is it emergent behavior? Even if it manifests as the word of a chieftain or shaman? Hard to say. It's like questioning whether your decision to eat is prompted by your stomach, your brain, or "you".

In a stable village, there are jobs that need to be done--because the return from the effort is worthwhile--that this child, and the adult he/she becomes, can do; even jobs that it becomes a culturally appropriate duty for "children like that". Maybe this would have been the child's fate, had he/she lived.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:35 PM on April 3, 2009


It is interesting that people seem to start with the assumption that early humans of course didn't care for the sick
Who has done that? I see where the person who wrote the headline made the opposite assumption, but not where anyone made the assumption that you're claiming.
posted by Flunkie at 5:41 PM on April 3, 2009


It is interesting that people seem to start with the assumption that early humans of course didn't care for the sick

Who has done that?


If you remove that assumption, the article is a bunch of duh and who gives a shit. (Although, of course, it is.)
posted by Sys Rq at 6:23 PM on April 3, 2009


No, if you remove that assumption and add its opposite, it's that.
posted by Flunkie at 6:45 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


What wonder.
posted by parmanparman at 6:59 PM on April 3, 2009


This is good news to me. If I accidentally travel 530,000 years into the past, it'll be nice to know that the humans there won't immediately club me to death for being different.
posted by orme at 7:11 PM on April 3, 2009


Not my field, by a long shot, but even "suggests" seems like too strong a word to me. Maybe "raises the possibility."

(Some) modern humans already care for disabled children, so I think the possibility has been raised.

For all we know this kid was the only one that didn't get left to the elements.

How would this theory ever be disproved? "Maybe these are the TWO that didn't get left out. Wait, I mean the THREE that didn't. Oh, you found 15? Then these are the 15 only ones that didn't get killed. All the others...*draws finger across neck*"
posted by DU at 7:22 PM on April 3, 2009


That this seems remarkable to anyone strikes me as, well, remarkable. Maternal and paternal instincts towards protecting children are extremely strong, of necessity.

there have been other remains suggesting that early humans cared for elderly adults with infirmity as well

This is good news to me. If I accidentally travel 530,000 years into the past, it'll be nice to know that the humans there won't immediately club me to death for being different.


All of the above comments are mashing together a bunch of disparate behaviors. The first comment is making its own assumptions about maternal instincts and how they should look. If you want to learn about maternal instincts, Sarah Hrdy's Mother Nature is still the most serious scientific summary. Not incidentally, it includes an entire chapter on neonaticide. The skull finding is surprising because killing new-borns with a low chance of survival and reproduction is a very human maternal behavior.

The repeated mistake is to think this would have to be connected to some other (or every other) form of morally recognizable behavior. That a woman who kills a disabled neonate would be indifferent to her disabled one year old, neglect or beat her able-bodied six year old, and leave her elderly parents behind to die in the cold. And, apparently, a woman who cares for her disabled children would be a pacifist, free from any sort of xenophobic hatred!

This isn't how human behavior works. Our moral instincts aren't "logical" or "consistent" (in whatever way you believe moral behaviors are "logical" to begin with). You can certainly think it's wrong for women in 'primitive' society to kill their newborns, but your moral disapproval doesn't mean they don't do it, and it requires none of the additional behavioral correlates you are assuming it does.
posted by dgaicun at 8:33 PM on April 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


see, and now i keep thinking... where are the baby cylons.
posted by fuzzypantalones at 8:39 PM on April 3, 2009


(The Michael The) ...were cared for by their mothers for up to a year.

... and then they realized that their offspring was blind.

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was just too hard (considering all the other stressors in the mother's life, perhaps caring for a blind child was too much given the situation).

GuyZero - "So, at the risk of sounding kind mean, how would you tell a mentally handicapped caveman/homo habilis from a normal one?

I wonder too - about autism. Were people with sever autism just not able to deal with 'social contract' and thus were considered assholes and, when they transgressed social codes - killed - and no-one had a problem with it?

Someone has to have tried to find documentation of autism in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century and how they fared socially...?!
posted by porpoise at 9:19 PM on April 3, 2009


It's not surprising that a primate mother cared for her child as long as she could, no matter how malformed babby was. It's also not surprising that Gorky or whatever she called her poor kid didn't live long. It's a very old story that belongs more in the human interest section than in the science section.
posted by pracowity at 9:58 PM on April 3, 2009


Deformed skull of prehistoric child suggests that early humans cared for disabled children were more Christian than most Christian Republicans in the US today.

Sorry, the snark was too easy
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:34 PM on April 3, 2009


One thing that's been suggested is that in a different age, some forms of current "mental handicapping" wouldn't be nearly as much of a handicap. Your kid might be simple, so what? He has a few basic tasks to do, and can do them most of the time. In a world without so much social pressure and cultural structure, there might be a lot of hard work, but it's not like you have to show up on time every day, and heck, you might not even have to hang out with other people, necessarily. Go find this particular plant. Find lots of it. Spend days finding it, if you need to. Bring some back. Cool.
posted by redsparkler at 2:20 AM on April 4, 2009


I haven't really kept up on the aspects of primitive society, sorry. But my idea still stands.
posted by redsparkler at 2:21 AM on April 4, 2009


Not in SPARTA!!!
posted by delmoi at 12:30 PM on April 4, 2009


"Go out and catch something to eat that has fangs, more feet, and runs faster than I do...or stay home, throw garbage at the fatheaded kid, and eat him after the 'accident'...damn, that's a tough one..."
posted by FormlessOne at 2:26 PM on April 4, 2009


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