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Hohokam burial

Ancient Compassion: 13th Century Disabled Woman Given Special Burial


The ancient grave of a young disabled woman afflicted with scoliosis, rickets and tuberculosis has been unearthed in Tempe, Arizona. The young woman had been carefully buried along with precious grave goods and had one of the most special burials out of nearly 200 other burials in the same location. The burial revealed a story which puts modern people in touch with the lives of those who lived nearly a millennium ago.

According to WesternDigs, the remains consist of a complete skeleton of a woman who died at around the age of 20. The burial is one of 172 skeletons or cremated burials discovered at a cemetery which belonged to the community of the Hohokam or Ancestral Sonoran Desert Culture.

Hohokam city, ca. AD 1100. Illustration by Michael Hampshire. Credit Pueblo Grande Museum

The grave, referred to as Burial 167, became interesting to the researchers since they discovered that the skeleton of the woman was severely disfigured. Specialists concluded that she suffered from both congenital and contracted diseases. The surprising fact was that her grave was one of the most richly appointed of all burials, decorated with numerous ceramic items, which shows the special feelings the community had for her. It is very mysterious that she was given an ornate burial treatment typically reserved for elders and elites.

WesternDigs reports that during excavations of the cemetery, the researchers discovered a large village, which was inhabited by the Hohokam people between the c. 700 and 1400s. The burials revealed a lot about the community in which the woman lived. The site was documented for the first time in the 1940s, and is now known as La Plaza, but most of the history of the site was lost forever as the city of Tempe and Arizona State University started to grow. However, the examination of the Burial 167 shed a new light to this story. The skeleton was mostly below the cranium and it was discolored.

Ruins at La Plaza, Ancient Settlement of the Hohokam people

Ruins at La Plaza, Ancient Settlement of the Hohokam people (

The disabled woman suffered due to a series of crippling conditions, each of which likely exacerbated the others. For example, she had cavities in her vertebrae and leg bones, caused by a systemic infection. Moreover, her skeleton wasn't symmetric, she had scoliosis or curvature of the spine. Her spine was curved at an angle of nearly 55 degrees. According to the researchers, it could have been caused by the deficit of the Vitamin D. This deficit may have been caused by lack of sun, suggesting her disability forced her to spend most of her time indoors. The lesions found along her spine and limbs are the hallmarks of severe tuberculosis, an infection of the lungs which, in the most severe cases, spreads to bone tissue. This probably didn't allow her to walk. It is very possible that she was born with these diseases.

The teeth of the woman allowed researchers to discover information about her diet. Most of the Hohokam people had a diet that caused them many problems with their teeth, but the disabled woman had perfect teeth. This suggests that she didn't eat the same food as others. Researchers suggest that this may be evidence for her high status in society.

Well-preserved burials of disabled people are always a very interesting aspect of some excavation sites. April Holloway from Ancient Origins reported in July 24, 2014, about another finding of a disabled person. She wrote:

''A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE has revealed the discovery of a Paleolithic child who appears to have suffered extensive brain damage after an injury, but survived for years afterwards. The child, who lived 100,000 years ago, would have been unable to care for himself or herself, so people must have spent years looking after the child. The finding dispels beliefs that parenting in the Paleolithic was excessively harsh.

The skull of the disabled child found in the Qafzeh cave system in Galilee, Israel.

The skull of the disabled child found in the Qafzeh cave system in Galilee, Israel. (public domain)

The child’s skeleton was first unearthed decades ago in the Qafzeh cave system in Galilee, Israel, along with 27 other partial skeletons, stone tools and hearths. However, only recently have technological advancements enabled scientists to perform detailed studies on the child’s skull through CT scanning and 3D reconstruction of the skull and the surface changes inside the skull.

The digital images revealed that the child had suffered a blunt-force trauma at the front of the skull that produced a compound fracture, with a piece of bone depressed in the skull. The trauma could have been caused by accidental injury e.g. a fall, or it may have been the result of violence.

By identifying the precise area in which the bone of the skull caved inwards, scientists were able to pinpoint the area of the brain that would have been affected by the injury. According to this research, the skull trauma would have led to difficulties in controlling movements and speaking, as well as caused personality changes and impaired the child's social functioning.  The child would have been rendered disabled and unable to care for himself or herself.''

Top image:  Main: The ruins of a Hohokam village on top of Indian Mesa (public domain). Inset: An x-ray showing an individual with scoliosis (public domain).

By Natalia Klimzcak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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