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Posted By Patrick

This spring a team of Spanish researchers published “Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (published online March 30; and then on April 21, Vol 106). Basically, the story is this: the team dug up Cranium 14 in 2001 and 2002, from one of at least 28 individuals found at this Atapuerca site, home to a community that existed 530,000 years ago. And when they put the pieces together, they discovered that the individual – who probably died at somewhere between 8 and 12 years old – had craniosynostosis, in which some parts of the skull fuse earlier than usual, possibly resulting in extra pressure on the brain; their paper describes this as a “case of a serious congenital skull deformation that may have required extra conspecific care for the individual to survive for a number of years before he/she died at the end of childhood.”  And then they point out that this conspecific care (meaning the community may have had to provide extra care for this individual) is not always a given, directing us to consider the cemetery of the Hospital of St. James and St. Mary Magdalene, an almshouse in 15th century Chichester, England – apparently, it was chock full of children with craniosynostosis, suggesting a high rate of abandoned kids.

Commentators on this article are intrigued that people half a million years ago displayed compassion (as they translate “conspecific care”) to their mentally disabled kin. Wired News notes that while the paleopathologists – someone who studies prehistoric disease – “couldn’t tell the exact level of mental retardation likely to result from the malformation, it would have been considerable, requiring large amounts of extra care from the prehistorical human community.”

Interestingly, the article and subsequent commentaries assume that what we see as disability, our ancestors 530,000 years ago must have as well. But on what evidence? What would constitute a disabling level of intelligence in this community? We don't know - instead, these commentaries are projecting our own concepts upon other communities, in this case one from the very distant past: just what was intelligence and what was “mental retardation” for this community?
Perhaps if we could build a time machine, design a culturally appropriate test to assess intellectual capacity according to one of our current theories of intelligence, and then send an educational psychologist back in time to gather a large enough sampling of cavefolk to norm the test and then apply it to our kid with craniosynostosis, we might learn something. But even then, it would take a long time to figure out what that “culturally appropriate” test might include – after all, look at our struggles with this problem today. And in the end, we would still be imposing our own concepts of intelligence and disability onto another culture where they might not hold. We can't say with any certainty what “intelligence” was to the people of Atapuerca half a million years ago – nor what an intellectual disability would look like to them. But I’ll wager that their concepts wouldn’t look like our ideas of intelligence and intellectual disability – or even the ideas of those folk from fifteenth-century Chichester, whose craniosynostosic children take up inordinate space in the hospital cemetery.