Resilience of the past


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 I was watching Dr. Who and I started thinking that to someone in the Middle Ages I would seem as strange as the Doctor does to us. I started thinking about violence and death throughout history because I've been reading Steven Pinker's latest book.

Think about this: I'm a 25-year old woman who has never seen anyone die, has seen only three people injured, has only known six people who died, has only held five babies and none of them were my own. What a huge anamoly in human history, what a sheltered person I am. If I had been born a thousand years ago, the odds are I would have seen many people die, including my own children. I may have seen my fathers, brothers, or husband die from wounds they suffered in battle or even from mundane accidents. 

I think people tend to downplay how resilient people really were. For example, I bookmarked this page on Viking health awhile back, which mentioned some injuries from Sagas:

Eyjólf's men thrust at Gísli with spears until his guts fell out. Gísli bound his guts up in his shirt with a cord and continued fighting. When fights continued for a long time (for example Heiðarvíga saga chapter 31), a pause was called in the fighting to allow men to bind up their wounds.

Just stories?

Both the saga literature and forensic studies of skeletal remains show that people survived serious battle injuries and lived to fight again after their wounds healed. In chapter 23 of Víga-Glúms saga, Þórarinn was struck by a blow that cut through his shoulder such that his lungs fell out. He was bound up, and Halldóra watched over him until the battle was over. Þórarinn was carried home where his wounds were treated, and over the summer, he recovered.

Of course there is no skeletal evidence for disembowlment or other soft tissue injuries, but there is plenty of evidence that these people were beat up. There are skeletons with horrible injuries that show remodeling, which is evidence that the person survived the injury and their body healed it somewhat. 

People also underwent surgeries in the Paleolithic. There are many skulls showing evidence for trepanning, a primitive form of BRAIN SURGERY. It's incredible, but people survived having holes drilled in their skulls while they were alive, though I think people underestimate how many ancients cultures had consciousness-altering drugs, so it may not have been as horrible as it sounded. 

I was reading The Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians: Health and Disease across a Hunter-Gatherer Continent, which is an incredible book that really shows the true richness of foraging life on that harsh continent. One striking picture I came across was this one:

A photograph taken by Donald Thomson (1975) of a Central Australian Man with an amputated right leg who has taken to using a crutch. 

The book describes several skeletons that show evidence of amputation. How was this done? It may not be completely accurate, but the book mentions the story of a Colonial Surgeon Worsnop:

At King George’s Sound [Western Australia} Mr Wollasron had a native visitor with only one leg; he had travelled ninety-six miles in that maimed state. On examination. the limb had been severed just below the knee, and charred by fire, while about [5 cm) of calcined bone protruded through the flesh. This bone was removed at once by saw, and a presentable stump was made On enquiry the native told him that in a tribal fight a spear had struck his leg and penetrated the bone  below the knee … He and his companions made a fire and dug a hole in the earth sufficiently large to admit his leg, and deep enough to allow the wounded part to  be on a level with the surface of the ground. The limb was then surrounded with the live coals or charcoal, and kept replenished until the leg was literally burnt off.

So both these men were missing a leg and were in better shape than many two-legged people today.