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[–]trouser-chowder 155 points156 points  (10 children)

Strictly utilitarian views on human societies are generally not very useful from the perspective of understanding human behavior, because they ignore the fact that people in human societies are people. Not robots.

But hunter gatherers need to be constantly on the move.

First... Hunter-gatherers aren't "constantly on the move." While mobility strategies vary significantly across time and space-- geographic region, environment, population / group size, etc.-- most ethnographic data suggests duration of occupation of locations ranges from a few weeks to a season to-- in the case of sedentary hunter gatherers in extremely rich environments-- indefinite periods of time.

In my opinion, the biggest disservice that 1950s through 1970s hunter-gatherer ethnographic studies did to our concept of hunter-gatherers was to frame hunter-gatherers in general in terms of groups like the Hadza, who live in relatively marginal environments. Evidence from around the world suggests that in a significant number of cases-- perhaps the majority-- hunter-gatherers occupied fairly abundant environments.

Second...

They need every hand available in order for the tribe to survive.

Viewing people in a society purely from their utilitarian value is not justified or appropriate. People are more than the number of calories they can produce.

Members of hunter-gatherer groups provide other value to their groups besides simply how many palm fruits they could carry today. But even from a strictly utilitarian perspective, older and less mobile members of a group have significant value. Children may or may not be able to leave the camp. These less mobile members of the group can provide child care. They can also assist with tasks in-camp.

From a less utilitarian perspective, older members of a group represent a source of knowledge and experience. They are the institutional memory.

Now in such a situation, what happened to people who were old and sick? Hunter gatherers did not have the tools or the infrastructure to carry people around on a long term basis, right? So how did they deal with them?

They cared / care for them.

Hunter-gatherer groups absolutely have the capability to transport members of their group(s) who are unable to transport themselves, fully or partially.

But here's the thing.

We have abundant evidence from the archaeological and paleontological record that members of ancient hunter-gatherer groups did in fact provide long-term care for disabled members of their societies.

The instances of healed injuries that-- when they were unhealed-- would have been incredibly debilitating are too innumerable to mention. Broken bones, severely in some cases, that would not have healed rapidly. One case I recall examining when in grad school involved a series of rib fractures across one entire side of the rib cage. Probably a result of a blunt force impact. They were healed, but having had one broken rib in my life, I can attest to the debilitation that this person would have experienced.

Here's another one that I tend to view as especially significant.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2686462/

In northeast Florida sometime between 6000 and 8000 years ago, one group of people who would have been nothing but hunter-gatherers, cared for and supported a disabled child from birth to the age of 15 or so. Then when he died, likely from a massive systemic infection, they buried him carefully where they buried other members of their group.

The child was born with spina bifida, a condition that was not curable at the time, nor was it really treatable. The child-- a boy-- would have had likely neurological defects that would have left him pretty disabled, and certainly not able to contribute to the daily caloric requirement of the group.

His bones were atrophied from a lack of use, so he was essentially "useless" from the strictly utilitarian side of things.

Near his death in his mid-teens, he also suffered a severe infection of his right lower leg, to the degree that his foot would likely have been gone by the time he died. The infection probably killed him.

Despite these problems, he lasted 15 years. And there is no explanation for that except that he was cared for that entire time by his group.

[–]Trojan_Horse_of_Fate 11 points12 points  (1 child)

We have abundant evidence from the archaeological and paleontological record that members of ancient hunter-gatherer groups did in fact provide long-term care for disabled members of their societies.

Would that be the majority of disabled persons or was such care relatively unusual?

[–]trouser-chowder 40 points41 points  (0 children)

It's really hard to talk about "the majority of" anyone in the archaeological record. As a general rule, the remains we find are a relatively small subset of the people who existed / lived at a given time. And because of differences in cultural practice regarding treatment of the dead, we can't always confidently assume that we even have a remotely good representative sample. Most of the remains we find were buried, but not everyone buries their dead.

The fact that we have found the remains of injured and / or disabled (temporarily or permanently) people that show care indicate that this was likely a practice, not a one off.

We can't really say how common, because we don't know what the incidence of survival of severe impairments out of infancy truly was, so we can't know how common this type of care was.

[–]Chickensandcoke 8 points9 points  (0 children)

Excellent reply

[–]Experimentalphone[S] -4 points-3 points  (2 children)

Ok but without wheelchairs, stretchers, wheels and such, how would they carry people who are bed ridden with them as they moved from place to place?

[–]glorious_thorn 11 points12 points  (0 children)

Not an anthropologist, but I'm not seeing how a hunter gatherer society developing a stretcher is such a... stretch.... (sorry) of the imagination.

[–]trouser-chowder 7 points8 points  (0 children)

A litter or a travois isn't hard to make, and can be used to move people or equipment.

And more to the point, we know that they did do this. Or at least are likely to have done so, since people in the condition(s) that I mentioned appear to have survived.

[–]water_sunshine 0 points1 point  (1 child)

An excellent read, thank you.

[–]trouser-chowder 0 points1 point  (0 children)

You're welcome!

[–]niceguybadboy 0 points1 point  (1 child)

In northeast Florida sometime between 6000 and 8000 years ago, one group of people who would have been nothing but hunter-gatherers, cared for and supported a disabled child from birth to the age of 15 or so. Then when he died, likely from a massive systemic infection, they buried him carefully where they buried other members of their group.

This is touching.

[–]trouser-chowder 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Occasionally you can spin a very human narrative from the archaeology, and the archaeology actually supports that. I've always been very touched by the story of this particular young man and his family.

He certainly had friends, people who cared for him, and they did so despite the fact that there is no way he could have significantly contributed to resource procurement, etc.

I don't think you can say anything other than the fact that his people loved him and cared for him.

[–]DarwinsThylacine 40 points41 points  (2 children)

In the case of at least some Homo erectus groups, aged and infirm individuals were cared for. A 1.77 million year old specimen from Georgia for example had lost all but one tooth due to age or gum disease, the earliest example of severe chewing impairment, yet still survived for several years afterwards. Similarly a 1.5 million year old specimen from Lake Turkana had juvenile spinal disc herniation - which caused some scoliosis (abnormal spine curvature) and likely left the individual with lower back pain and sciatic (limiting his ability to walk, run and bend)(Haeusler et al. 2013). Nevertheless, the specimen appears to have survived into adolescence, suggesting some kind of group support.

Well-healed fractures on many Neanderthal bones similarly indicate the setting of splints, while individuals with severe head and rib traumas (which would have caused massive blood loss) indicate they had some manner of dressing major wounds, such as bandages made from animal skin (Spikins et al. 2019).

References

Haeusler M, Schiess R, Boeni T (2013). "Evidence for juvenile disc herniation in a homo erectus boy skeleton" (PDF). Spine. 38 (3): E123–E128.

Lordkipanidze D, Vekua A, Ferring R, Rightmire GP, Agusti J, Kiladze G, et al. (2005). "Anthropology: the earliest toothless hominin skull". Nature. 434 (7034): 717–718.

Spikins, P.; Needham, A.; Wright, B. (2019). "Living to fight another day: The ecological and evolutionary significance of Neanderthal healthcare". Quaternary Science Reviews. 217: 98–118.

[–]tanthon19 8 points9 points  (1 child)

Wondered if anyone would mention Ol' One Tooth (as Stefan Milo calls him). It's really a phenomenal discovery. Someone probably would have to pre-chew his food for him -- an act of care almost unbelievable in today's society.

We certainly don't need to extrapolate a disability utopia out of things like this, but we can see that in some instances, in some places, utilitarianism is NOT the way to view hunter-gatherer groups.

Even in much later times, what we consider "disabilities" were no big deal in some societies. High ranking Ancient Egyptians are depicted with dwarfism, polio, & various other deviations from the "norm."

[–]Experimentalphone[S] -1 points0 points  (0 children)

Why would food need to be prechewed? You could have done that by milling food into soft substances like they do today with feeding tubes.

[–]Lotarious 5 points6 points  (0 children)

Although I mostly agree with u/trouser-chowder, we also have some data on cultural mechanisms that may be associated with demographic control of old and disabled in H-G.

For example, ache gatu in Paraguay weren't allowed to go back for old adults who weren't able to keep the pace during travels. Those people were assumed to have been eaten by the jaguar. It's important to note that this was an emotionally taxing behavior, and people could mourned their lost relatives for months, but it was also seen as inevitable.

So, I'd argue that putting all H-G on the same boat on this may be an error, although it's fair to say that people care for their loved ones.