Tuesday, March 12, 2013


photo: Lorna Tilley
In a piece in Science Times last December (“Ancient Bones That Tell a Story of Compassion,” NYT 12/17/12), James Gorman describes the discipline of “bioarchaelogy.” By studying the bones of ancient people, researchers determine both the ailments they suffered from and the kind of care they received. Some of the findings would dispute the notion that ancient peoples had a more primitive approach to health care than their contemporary counterparts. Gorman describes the work of Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham of Australian National University in Canberra in excavating the remains of “a profoundly ill young man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam.” From their analysis “they gathered that he became paralyzed from the waist down before adolescence, the result of a congenital disease known as Klippel-Feil Syndrome. He had little, if any use of his arms and could not have fed himself or kept himself clean. But he lived another l0 years or so.” In classic mythology seers prophecy the future, but what is miraculous about the work that Oxenham and Tilley have done relates to how much they can tell us about the past. The remains of the young man, who was identified as Burial 9, not only tell us about his condition, but of the mores of the culture he lived in. Describing Tilley’s work Gorman remarks, “In the case of Burial 9, she says, not only does his care indicated tolerance and  cooperation in his culture, but suggests that he himself had a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live.” Medicine is making it possible to increase longevity, but older people are increasingly looked at as physical and economic burdens, whose extended life spans drain the energy and resources of the children they have brought into the world. Loneliness and isolation are two ailments for which even the most modern medical technologies have yet to find a cure. Without the aid of modern medicine, ancient peoples lived shorter lives, but if Oxenham and Tilley’s findings are indicative of any patterns, even those of them who suffered from the most critical congenital conditions seemed to have lived and died with a dignity that eludes many elderly people today.


  1. jylle benson-gaussMarch 12, 2013 at 3:28 PM

    Well said!
    My parents in Michigan lost a neighbor to heart attack this weekend; their age peers in their neighborhood are all gone now. They are the only octogenarians remaining. I think that the longer we live, the lonelier we become. The very real possibility that we might outlive our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and--saddest of all--our children, could leave us stranded in life, a living artifact without context. No-one would remember us in our vibrant, supple, splendid youth.
    This is not to say that our elders are without purpose or meaning, just that our culture (as you point out) doesn't value them. A culture that disregards its elders is a culture without depth, worshipping cleverness, perhaps, and ignoring wisdom.

  2. No one will remember us is a very fetching idea in and of itself. Forget about our vibrant youths and think about all the memories that vanish when someone departs. Minds are the repository of memory and one by one they vanish until, the memory of all of us is annihilated. Now on the subject of age, i personally hope that I have the guts to pass the baton on, rather than lingering around to such a point that attending to my existence becomes an obligation for someone. I realize this runs contrary to the notion of the culture I describe, but let’s face facts my kind has not been brought up as well as the those folks who cared for the young Vietnamese man 4000 years ago. Medical science will attempt to extend my life to the chagrin of all those who have to deal with my inevitable crankiness.


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