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Keywords:

  • Shanidar I;
  • Romito 2;
  • Windover Boy;
  • Handicap;
  • Archeological inference

Abstract

Paleopathological analyses of skeletal remains have provided significant information about diet and health in prehistoric populations. A number of individuals have been recovered whose remains show evidence of impairments that would have precluded “normal” functioning, resulting in a disability. The most famous example is Shanidar I; more recent discoveries include the Romito 2 dwarf from Italy and a boy with spina bifida from the Windover site in Florida. These finds have been interpreted by some writers as evidence for compassion and “moral decency” among the other members of the community, who would have had to support these nonproductive individuals. However, these interpretations are based on a number of implicit assumptions: about the number of nonproductive members normally present in any population, about the abilities of disabled individuals by other members of the group, and about the “moral rightness” of facilitating the survival of a disabled individual under all circumstances. These assumptions are not justified by the evidence from the archeological record or by reference to ethnographic analogy. A tendency to focus on physical traits as the sole measure of productive ability, images of Rousseau's “noble savage” transported to the past, and unexamined beliefs about the disabled in modern societies have influenced these archeological interpretations. We are not justified in drawing conclusions either about the quality of life for disabled individuals in the past or about the motives or attitudes of the rest of the community from skeletal evidence of physical impairment.