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A Journey through Time 2: My Thoughts on Persons with Disabilities during the Hunter-Gatherer Era

What does the egalitarian behaviour of Hunter-Gatherers towards Persons with Disabilities tell us about human nature?

When I started this research to understand the conditions of Persons with Disabilities throughout history, I wanted to look back as far as I could in the past in order to obtain as comprehensive a perspective as possible. Therefore, I started thinking about the earliest period of human history I learned about in school, the hunter-gatherer period. Hunter-gatherers were peoples who lived mostly by foraging and scavenging for subsistence before the rise of agricultural societies. Their way of life continued well into the modern period in isolated, remote parts of the world and they continue to exist today. Even though the historical period hunter-gatherers lived during makes up the vast majority of human history, it is rarely discussed or portrayed in contemporary culture.

In light of this, I reflected upon the limited way in which hunter-gatherers are referenced in our everyday language. Of course, the term hunter-gatherer itself is not commonly used in our daily conversations, however, if we asked people on the street to define the term; what do you think they would say? I would guess that a lot of people would define hunter-gatherers as ‘brutal, primitive cavemen.’ In a way they would be correct since the conditions that hunter-gatherers existed in were primitive and brutal, but is it correct to describe them this way?

Interestingly, when ‘cavemen’ are spoken about today, hunter-gatherers are often not the subject of the conversation, rather the term is deployed pejoratively to identify someone, usually a man, who’s behaving rudely towards a woman. Thus, when a man exhibits this negative behaviour, he is said to be ‘acting like a caveman.’ Men who behave in this way should be called out, however, in my opinion, this negative connotation associated with ‘cavemen’ demonstrates a problematic trend at the core of debates about ‘human nature.’

In these debates about the fundamental nature of humanity, we are often asked to decide if humanity is inherently self-interested or egalitarian. If asked to explain using historical examples, those who argue that humanity is fundamentally self-interested would likely cite the self-interested behaviour of cavemen’ as reflective of human nature. Thus, the selfish, harsh behaviour that continues today towards society’s most vulnerable - including persons with disabilities - can be explained away retroactively by citing the past to argue that humanity has “always” behaved in this way.

Thus, from this perspective, potential remedies that seek to remedy inequalities through egalitarianism are rendered pointless due to an assumption of humanity’s fundamental selfishness. Of course, a nuanced answer in this debate would acknowledge that humans are simultaneously both self-interested and egalitarian. However, in order to advance our political aims in contemporary struggles, we must take understand the political utility of emphasizing examples of humanity’s egalitarian nature, rather than only focusing on historical examples of self-interest.

When the term ‘cavemen’ is used pejoratively today, we reveal a deeply held perception of our ancestors as ‘primitive’ people whose behaviour towards one another was harsh and violent. To gain more a nuanced understanding of their behaviour, I referenced the historical record from which we can see how earlier species evolved to become Homo Sapiens on the African continent approximately two to three hundred thousand years ago. There is still some debate about exactly when humans demonstrated ‘behavioural modernity’ i.e., when they exhibited the set of mental and physical traits, such as planning, abstract thinking, and the use of symbolic representations and behaviours. These traits distinguish homo sapiens from previous species we evolved from.

At this historical juncture, we can see that homo sapiens began to interact with one another in a way that would be familiar to us. By consulting the archaeological record, we can also pose the question; how did hunter-gatherers behave towards persons with disabilities?

Archaeological research that has been recently conducted from a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ perspective examines how humans provided health care to one another. Case studies done from this perspective reveal archaeological evidence of individuals who had disabilities so severe that they only could have survived with care provided by fellow human beings. There are numerous examples of this from around the world, and I would like to share a few notable examples which include both people who would have required more intensive care, and people who would have needed accommodation.

For example, in the oldest known case from Iraq, the remains of a fifty-year-old man were found who had an amputated arm and the loss of vision in one eye, which shows they had the compassion to utilize resources and knowledge to amputate his arm and help him when necessary due to his visual impairment. In another case, archaeologists in Florida found the skeleton of an approximately fifteen-year-old boy with spina bifida, which demonstrates that his group took care of a paralyzed individual well enough for him to live into early adulthood. Another example, from Italy, the remains of a teenager were found who had severe dwarfism through which he had very short arms and legs which would have made him slower and less able to gather as much food.

When one learns about hunter-gatherers' behaviour towards persons with disabilities, it’s a good reminder of the compassion and egalitarianism of humanity, in general. I would encourage people to reassess their perceptions about our ancestors with whom, I would argue, we are more similar than we think. Finally, this reassessment should cause further reflection about our behaviour towards fellow humans and how we construct society today. If hunter-gatherers could behave with such empathy, forming egalitarian communities, we should be able to solve crises like climate change and inequality with all the resources and knowledge we have accumulated throughout the preceding centuries.

Chavia Ali

Works Cited:

Crubézy, Eric, and Erik Trinkaus. "Shanidar 1: A case of hyperostotic disease (DISH) in the Middle Paleolithic." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 89, no. 4 (1992): 411-420.

Dickel, David N., and Glen H. Doran. "Severe neural tube defect syndrome from the Early Archaic of Florida." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 80, no. 3 (1989): 325-334.

Frayer, David W., William A. Horton, Roberto Macchiarelli, and Margherita Mussi. "Dwarfism in an adolescent from the Italian late Upper Paleolithic." Nature 330, no. 6143 (1987): 60-62.

Lee, Richard B., Richard Heywood Daly, and Richard Daly, eds. The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tilley, Lorna. "The bioarchaeology of care." The SAA Archaeological Record 12, no. 3 (2012): 39-41.

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