The examination of mental disorders would seem to be the almost exclusive domain of psychiatrists and psychologists, not humanities scholars. Yet William V. Harris, the William R. Shepherd Professor of History, has spent his time in recent years studying his chosen field—the history of ancient Greece and Rome—through the lens of mental illness.
This article doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but it made me wonder if, and how, and whether, mental illness could be approached through archaeology. Has anybody tried? The wikipedia entry for the History of Depression heralds a sub-section of coverage from “Prehistory to medieval periods”, but in fact begins with classical Greece.
What would a pre-text history of mental illness look like? In a sense I think the very inaccessibility of prehistory makes mental illness as realistic a lens of study as any other kind of worldview; we are not being confused and bombarded with textual representations of more-or-less neuro-typical thinking, as we are in common-or-garden classical Greece. If individuals and groups produce material culture which perpetuates or modifies their social norms, depression for example (assuming it is a neurological condition inherent to being human, and not a sort of Durkheimian malaise of the modern age) must be among the social norms represented in material culture.
It should be possible to detect an archaeology of depression.
According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.
It strikes me this would be a neat way of accounting for what Childe called “the urban revolution” – that very strange period occurring spontaneously in different parts of the world where humans began to live, permanently or at least seasonally, in large numbers side by side in the same place. If extremes of behaviour can alter gene expression then it only takes a handful of random sets of extreme circumstances worldwide to alter the behaviour of a whole community, such that this community is predisposed to what would become urban life.
Throw in a suitable agricultural environment and climatic conditions for population growth and you have History.
So that’s that settled.