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.

In the grave researchers discovered ”at least a half-dozen ceramic items, including a jar, a cylindrical vessel, a bowl placed near her head, another coated in the metallic mineral schist placed upside-down over her feet, and another bowl by her left side that contained a small ceramic effigy of a duck”.

According to Eric Cox, the archaeologist who led the excavation, the burial brought more questions than answers. First of all, he wonders how she able to even survive to the age of 20, considering her condition. Moreover, it is very mysterious why she was given an ornate burial treatment typically reserved for elders and elites.

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 (

Cox reports on the finding:

“I was actually digging that one, and it was toward the end of the day when we started to uncover it. I got her skull uncovered, and I got to her left side, and … what stuck out to me was that her entire left side was gracile — it hadn’t developed as much as the right side had. It was like her left side was for a five-foot person, while her right side was for a five-foot-six person. Her skull was like every other skull that we had recovered, but her postcranial skeleton was all stained brown. There was no evidence of any kind of burning or anything else in the burial pit that would explain why her postcranial skeleton was discolored.”

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.

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