Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Biological Anthropology Section
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Violence
Secondary Theme: Identity and Equity
Assisted death, defined as assisting or participating in the death of another individual with some level of benevolent intent, has been a major source of debate within the modern medical and legal fields for decades. However, comparatively little research has been conducted on the history and prehistory of this practice around the world. While not universally seen in human groups, practices such as self-willed assisted death, mercy killings, infanticide, and abandonment, have been extensively documented among humans through time and space, and thus should be identifiable within the bioarchaeological record.
However, assisted death is a difficult topic to explore though material remains as it is characterized by the same physical features as many other forms of violence such as warfare, sacrifice, and murder, as well as certain cases of natural death or disease in the past. Even in modern forensic and medical cases, the boundaries between ‘mercy’ and ‘murder’ can be impossible to fully delineate.
But it must also be acknowledged that the decision to aid in the termination of another human’s life is highly situational, often triggered by major stressors such as famine or war or when culturally specific criteria are met by the victim, such as extreme impairment or suffering. With this in mind, a comparative, holistic approach to bioarchaeological analysis does allow for the consideration and identification of assisted death in the historic and prehistoric past. In particular, the recent successful identification of a probable assisted killing of a prehistoric Native American individual from Alabama has underlined the need for, and potential value of, further exploration of this suite of behaviors in the human past.
Bioarchaeological data has major heuristic value for identifying and interpreting assisted death, particularly when used in tandem with ethnographic or ethnohistoric data, however such approaches must also recognize the unique limitations presented by skeletal data. Thus, in addition to variation in assisted death in the past, this session will also explore how factors such as differential diagnosis, and preservation or sample bias should be taken into account in such approaches.
The legality and morality of assisted death continues to be a polarizing topic within the modern world. The perspectives gained from an examination of assisted death in the past can provide new and unique insights into how human groups have dealt with the seemingly contradictory intersection of violence and care inherent in the act of assisting in, or allowing, the death of another person.