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Disability in Primates: Social Consequences

5 Mar

I am afraid I have been rather busy lately, so I have not had the time to produce posts (although a fair few are in the early daft stage).  This should be rectified with a few forthcoming posts on various topics of interest but for now I just wanted to highlight this article of note.

The article, by Turner et al (2014), highlights the lack of studies in the social treatment of disabled individuals in extant nonhuman primate populations.  Turner et al (2013) help rectify the situation and discuss a detailed case study of a population of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), from the Awajishima Monkey Center, in their social interactions in a population which includes a number of physically disabled individuals.

A paraphrased highlight of the abstract:

“Debates about the likelihood of conspecific care for disabled individuals in ancestral hominins rely on evidence from extant primates, yet little is known about social treatment (positive, neutral or negative) of physically disabled individuals in nonhuman primates….Overall, there was little evidence either for conspecific care or for social selection against disability. In general, there was a socially neutral response to disability, and while neutral social context allows for the possibility of care behaviors, our findings emphasize the self-reliant abilities of these disabled primates and suggest caution when inferring conspecific care for even very disabled ancestral humans.”

From Turner et al (2014:1), with the added italic emphasis mine.

I am intrigued what effect this study could have on the study of physical impairment in the archaeological record.  There are a number of techniques now available to the researcher to enable to detect social responses to physical impairment in the human record (burial position, age at death estimations, care provisioning, biogeochemical approaches), but they require great care in the interpretation of results.  Turner et al (2014) study highlights the real value of being able to observe the behaviour of nonhuman primates in a simulated wild environment, something that whilst not directly able to provide answers to hominin evolution does provide an important parallel.

I will update this post further when I get chance to discuss the results of the article in more depth.

On a related note I noticed this post on John Hawks weblog recently, ‘Chimpanzee communities are hundreds of years old‘, tantalizing to think of the implications for the understanding of behaviour and attitudes in great ape groups and how they may differ in regards to physical impairment or long term disablement (Langergraber et al. 2014).


Langergraber, K. E., Rowney, C., Schubert, G., Crockford, C, Hobaiter, C., Wittig, R., Wrangham, R. W., Zuberuhler, K. & Vigilant, L. 2014. How Old are Chimpanzee Communities? Time to the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the Y-Chromosome in Highly Patrilocal Societies. Journal of Human Evolution. (In Press).

Turner, S. E., Fedigan, L. M., Matthews, H. D. & Nakamichi, M. 2014. Social Consequences of Disability in a Nonhuman Primate. Journal of Human Evolution. In Press. (Behind a pay wall).