In DepthArchaeology

Rare diseases prompted care in ancient times

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Science  15 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6432, pp. 1136
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6432.1136

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For decades, researchers have been unearthing odd human bones that are twisted, too long or too short, or studded with protruding growth. They're a sign that someone in the past suffered from a rare disease such as dwarfism. But few scientists have studied these cases or what they reveal about ancient societies. At an unusual, interdisciplinary workshop in Berlin, however, researchers presented case after case that challenge the common notion that life in the past was nasty, brutish, and short. In a line of research called the bioarchaeology of care, scientists are finding that people with rare diseases often enjoyed the support of their societies, survived well into adulthood, and were buried with their communities, not as marginalized outsiders. In some cases, "disease" may not be the right descriptor, because ancient societies may have revered conditions we now consider disability. Ancient Egyptians honored people with dwarfism, for example, and even cleft palate, considered a deformity today, may have been respected in the past.

  • * Andrew Curry is a journalist in Berlin.

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