There is a poignant, passionate poem by the Australian poet A.D. Hope about a thousand-year-old bone inscribed with Viking runes. It concludes:
And, in a foreign tongue,
A man, who is not he,
Reads and his heart is wrung
This ancient grief to see,
And thinks: When I am dung,
What bone shall speak for me?
Perhaps an anthropologist with a poetic bent will be inspired to write something similar after reading the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hidden under the dry headline of “Craniosynostosis in the Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain” is another tale of ancient grief. So ancient — 530,000 years ago — that the thread of humanity linking it to us all but snaps.
Cranium 14 was discovered in the famous archeological site of Atapuerca. Scattered throughout several caves in the area are the bones and tools of the earliest humans found in Europe. The most interesting findings are to be found in Sima de los Huesos (the pit of the bones). This site is located at the bottom of a 13-metre (50-foot) deep chimney which has to be accessed by scrambling through caves. Twenty-eight people of both sexes rest in pieces, smashed into thousands of fragments.
No one knows exactly how and why the bones tumbled there, but it may have been a burial ground. Another theory is that they were washed down when the cave flooded. No matter. The point is that more than 30 fragments belonged to a little girl aged between 5 and 12. Nameless now, she has been christened Cranium 14 by the anthropologists.
Any relics this old offer precious clues to the lives of our distant ancestors. But when the researchers reconstructed Cranium 14’s fragments, they discovered something very surprising: she appears to have been severely mentally retarded. They know this because she clearly suffered from craniosynostosis, a birth defect in which the skull segments close too early, producing facial deformities and interfering with the development of the brain.
The particular skull distortion of the child in Sima de Huesos affects fewer than 6 in 200,000 individuals in living humans. It is distressing for parents. The head can be large and misshapen, the eyes can bulge out. The children can be blind and deaf. Their limbs may be deformed. They may have seizures and feed poorly. Cranio-facial surgery works wonders and after many, many operations, an affected child can lead something like a normal life. Even so, the story of a child with the condition makes for painful reading. Many doctors would advise mothers to terminate the pregnancy.
Here’s the remarkable thing. The hunter-gatherer Middle Pleistocene family of Cranium 14 must have cared for the child or she would not have survived for at least five years, and perhaps as many as 12 years. In the dry-as-dust words of the article, “It is obvious that the [Sima de Huesos] hominin species did not act against the abnormal/ill individuals during the infancy, as has happened along our own history many times and in many cultures”.
They go on to say: “Cranium 14 is the earliest documented case of craniosynostosis with resulting neurocranial, brain deformities, and, very likely, asymmetries of the facial skeleton. Despite these handicaps, this individual survived for >5 years, suggesting that her/his pathological condition was not an impediment to receive the same attention as any other Middle Pleistocene Homo child”.
Were the hunter-gatherer Middle Pleistocene hearts of the family of Cranium 14 wrung with ancient grief when she died? We don’t know. We know only that her bones speak of tenderness and compassion. Season after season, under unimaginably harsh conditions, they tended her with callused hands until she died. Nowadays, if her disability had been detected early enough, she would probably be aborted. Civilisation is a mixed blessing sometimes.