She was a 78-years-old, frail lady, breathless and febrile. Her old sari and tattered blouse and total lack of jewellery showed that she was not the most sought-after ‘prime’ family member anymore. I examined her.

‘She has early signs of pneumonia; she needs a chest X-ray, some blood tests and probably a couple of days of hospital admission. But first let us see her test reports’, I paused.

Her son, a chubby middle-aged man, with a gold ring on alternate fingers, gave me a cold look.

“Doctor, she is old and we have no time. Both my wife and me are working; my daughter has her school exams. For her satisfaction, just write some medicines, we will take her home.”

“She never listens to anyone, and goes on spitting all around the room,” chipped in the visibly irritated daughter-in-law. “Just make sure it is not TB. Our daughter always wants to go close to her and that worries me,” she added.

I wrote some antibiotics and sent the woman home. They never asked me when they should come back for follow-up. They never did.

Lake Turkana (aka Lake Rudolf) in Kenya is a large saltwater lake, covering 6500 square km, draining the Omo, Turkwel and Kerio rivers. Surrounded by desert and inhospitable rocky terrain, it is an unlikely place for being the cradle of human history. However, in late 1970, a diverted commercial flight carrying Robert Leaky, the famous palaeontologist, changed all that. Looking out of the window of the low flying aircraft, his trained eyes quickly scanned the terrain below and convinced him that this area looked like a spot where fossils are likely to be found. Leakey was searching for the elusive ‘missing link’, the connection between the apes and human ancestors.

Leakey selected Kamoya Kimeu, a Kenyan fossil hunter to lead the expedition team. By 1984 the team had discovered two fossils of Homo Habilis, the earliest of homo erectus, perhaps our real ancestors. One of them was the famous fossil of a boy, known to palaeontologists as the ‘Turkana Boy,’ while the other less known one was that of a woman, estimated to have lived 1.7 million years ago.

The skeleton of the woman showed badly deformed lower limb bones, indicating that she was unable to walk at least the last few years of her life. But surprisingly, scientists found features of hyperostosis, (excess irregular bone growth) in the skeleton. It is found in cases of excess Vitamin A intake (hypervitaminosis A). Hypervitaminosis A results from eating too much of animal meat and liver. This simply meant that, despite being crippled and unable to walk, the woman was fed with animal meat and cared for by her companions. Evidence of compassion and kindness by a human kin dates back 1.7 million years in the past. A legacy and commitment that catapulted human evolution to a level taking us light years ahead of other bipeds.

We unceremoniously ditched it in 21st century. We call it development.

Computerisation has made life simple. Modern society has just hit the delete button to reformat the million-year-old human character of caring for the elderly.

(The writer is Head, Dept. of Cardiology, PRS Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram. Email:

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