One Accident Too Many? [PDF]
Margaret A. Judd
How did he die? This is a frequent question asked of bioarchaeologists when examining skeletal remains and in most cases the answer eludes us. Perhaps a more plausible question would be ‘how did he live?’ but even then there are limitations to the interpretation of trauma and disease in ancient skeletal remains, particularly episodes of trauma. Healed traumatic lesions, in addition to dental disease and osteoarthritis, are the most frequently observed pathological lesions in ancient skeletal remains, both human and animal. Most individuals who suffered from injury exhibit one or two lesions (frac- ture, dislocation, or muscle pull), but occasionally an individual is excavated whose skeletal remains are riddled with trauma, which offers an intriguing case study.
Skeleton showing the effects of leprosy, Netherlands [?], 1250-1500: The right and left feet show the devastating effects of leprosy on the bones of the body. This erosion and damage, caused by the decay of protective fatty tissue, does not occur in all cases. These feet are believed to be from an adult female buried in a leprosy cemetery attached to a leper hospital.
New Open Access Issue of Dental Anthropology Journal
Palaeopathology, the study of ancient diseases in human or animal remains usually means analysis of the skeletal material to examine the diseases effect on the bone. However, palaeopathology is not a straightforward science with many diseases not even appearing on the bone, and when they do, they present very similar manifestations but with very different causes.
Periostitis, for example, is a non-specific infection of the bone that causes extra bony growth in long small layers across the bone. It can appear from any number of infections or diseases, and therefore is not indicative of a single cause. In order to diagnose pathology in bones, it takes a careful inspection of all the possible pathological signs and careful analysis of all the potential diseases within the historical context.
In most cases we are left not with a single correct diagnosis, but with a differential diagnosis of the most likely pathology and others that are also possible. Here are two case studies in paleopathology: ovarian teratoma, and osteogenesis imperfecta.
Fragment of human skull pierced by bronze arrowhead, China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE
“Ancient evidence of violent death? A bronze arrowhead is embedded in this skull dating back 2000 years. It is unknown whether this was caused by accident or warfare, but the Han Dynasty in China, where this fragment originated, was a time of great political unrest. Professional opinion is divided as to whether death was instantaneous. The man may have lived for at least two weeks after the incident because there is evidence of new bone growth. This can only have occurred while he was alive. The green staining around the arrowhead is thought to be evidence of pus from infection. Infection rather than the arrowhead may have been the cause of this person’s death.”
(Text and image source: The Science Museum, London)
Skull with hydrocephalus- fluid build up in the brain in Romania.
Where were these specimen in Romania?
Intervertebral disc disease (IVD).
Nothing makes you want to brush your teeth more than studying dental calculus and caries in palepathology class. Bleh
Yes but the phytoliths in that calculus…So very, very interesting for palaeodietary studies.
- Henry, A.G., Brooks, A.S. and Piperno, D.R. 2011. “Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium),” PNAS 108:486-491.
Looking back through the photographs from my dissertation work, there are a couple of interesting pathological conditions that I never got around to posting, and that you guys might find interesting.
This is probably the most extreme case of degenerative joint disease of the femoral head I have seen so far.
The five stages of cribra orbitalia according to Stuart-Macadam 1991. 18th-19th century remains from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, UK.
The term cribra orbitalila is a descriptive one rather than diagnostic that has been in use since the late 19th century, when Welcker (1885, 1888) coined the phrase and Graf von Spec (1896) described the condition in anatomical literature (Exner 2004). Literally translating to “sieve of the orbits,” its aetiology and appearance have been debated in the literature. Radiographs showing a thickening of the orbital vault have been attributed to iron-deficiency anaemia and thalassemia. Different macroscopic scoring methods have been proposed. Each considers the gradual proliferation of pores over varying degrees. Cribra orbitalia that still afflicted the individual (was “active”) at the time of death can easily be recognised by the naked eye as pitting in the bony orbital vault. Hamperl and Weiss (1955) included it under the umbrella term spongius hyperostosis (today, porotic hyperostosis) in discussing its occurrence in an early Peruvian collection.
Stage 1 shows “capillary-like formations” etching the periosteum; stage 2 is of “scattered, fine foramina;” stage 3 presents “large and small isolated foramina”; stage 4, “foramina have linked into a trabecular structure”; and type 5, “outgrowth in trabecular form from the outer table surface.”
From the intro of my masters thesis on cribra orbitalia at the University of Bristol.
19th century cranium with caries sicca caused by the gummatous lesions of syphilis. This is an extreme example of tertiary syphilis (neurosyphilis). Pitted lesions erode, heal and scar over many years and infection of the brain and other parts of the body along with advanced dementia would have also occurred.
Syphilis is quickly becoming my favorite “bone disease”!
Linear Enamel Hypoplasia (LEH) is a dental defect caused by periods of enamel deficiency, which occur during the formation of permanent teeth in early childhood (Wood, 1996). LEH in permanent teeth is usually the result of episodic childhood disease or malnutrition that occurs roughly within the first six or seven years of life (Maclellan, 2005).
Once the mature tooth has erupted, LEH typically presents itself as transverse striations or bands near the crown of the tooth, but it can also manifest as small pits of reduced thickness in the tooth’s enamel (Wood, 1996).
The emergence of deciduous and permanent teeth occurs at a known rate, and by measuring the distance between the LEH and the cement-enamel junction (CEJ; where the enamel covered crown meets the cementum covered root), the age at which specific episodes of illness occurred can be determined (Maclellan, 2005).
While the skeletal remains of children are generally underrepresented in the archaeological record, studying LEH in adult remains can help capture and reconstruct the nature of childhood – of the stressors that acted upon their bodies and their social circumstances – in a particular area at a particular time (Maclellan, 2005).
photo source (otisarchives1)
Maclellan, E. (2005). Linear enamel hypoplasia: What can it say about the condition of childhood?. Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, 13(1), 40-52. Retrieved from http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/totem/vol13/iss1/7
Wood, L. (1996). Frequency and chronological distribution of linear enamel hypoplasia in a north american colonial skeletal sample. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 100, 247-259. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1096-8644(199609)101:1<135::AID-AJPA10>3.0.CO;2-1