Category Archives: Osteology

A trephinated skull from Germany

A review of new research is presented in Nature Precedings regarding a skull radiocarbon dated to 1940 calBC (late Neolithic – early Bronze Age) from Germany, which exhibits signs of trephination.

The authors say:

The skull fragment includes large parts of the cranial vault including both frontal bones down to the left orbital rim, the right parietal, and both occipital regions. The whole cranial base as well as the facial bones and the left temporal regions are missing. It is the only part left of the original skeleton of an adult male. The skull fragment shows two manipulations: In the left frontal-region one notes a hole with a diameter of 30 x 25 mm which results from a funnel-shaped trephination with the outer size of 53 x 50 mm. The diameter of the rim varies from 10 ­ 12 mm. The diploe of the bone is not visible which means that the trephination must have been survived for a longer period of time. The configuration of the defect and the angulation of its edge indicate that the trephination was performed by the scraping-technique. A second defect involves the left occipital region partially crossing the lambdoid suture. It consists of two small and one larger skull fragments which have grown together forming a typical consolidated depressed skull fracture. The depth of the defect is approximately 10 mm at its maximum. Its diameter measures 35 x 24 mm.

They speculate that the individual received two simulataneous injuries, one of which was trephined whilst the second healed without medical intervention. However, as they note, two chronologically differing traumatic incidents are possible of which only one was severe enough to be in need of surgical measures. Alternatively, the intact skull may have been trephined in the left frontal region because of the temporo-occipital injury to prevent complications, e.g. a suspected haematoma under a local bruise of the skin.

Reference: Piek, Juergen, Lidke, Gundula, and Terberger, Thomas. Ancient Trephinations in Neolithic People – Evidence for Stone Age Neurosurgery?. Available from Nature Precedings <; (2008)


Trepanation: The Legacy of Ancient Brain Surgery

Jim Myres at Scientific Blogging discusses an interesting history of skull surgery in ‘Trepanation: The Legacy Of Ancient Brain Surgery‘.

What were the chances of surviving the Black Death?

From the latest edition of Current Archaeology (No. 217):

Why did some people survive the Black Death, and others succumb? At the time of the plague – which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1351, carrying off 50 million people, perhaps half the population – various prophylactics were tried, from the killing of birds, cats and rats to the wearing of leather breeches (protecting the legs from flea bites) and the burning of aromatic spices and herbs.

Now it seems that the best way of avoiding death from the disease was to be fit and healthy. Sharon DeWitte and James Wood of the University of Albany, New York, have examined 490 skeletons from the East Smithfield plague pit in London and found that the Black Death was selective in picking off the already frail. Lesions (damaged bone) associated with earlier episodes of infection, under-nutrition or other forms of physiological stress were present in most of those buried at East Smithfield, where the dead were stacked five deep in the mass graves on a site hurriedly opened on land donated by the Bishop of London.

“This actually contradicts what many have assumed about the epidemic,” says Dr De Witte. “The pattern we observed is of the Black Death targeting the weak, though it did also kill some people who were otherwise healthy. This is consistent with an emerging disease striking a population with no immunity.”

Yersinia pestis, ancient DNA and the Black Death


The Black Death is the name given to a pandemic which killed up to a third of the European population between 1347 and 1352. Over the next three hundred years this pandemic was followed by further plagues of lesser mortality. These are historically ascribed to bubonic plague whose aetiological agent is the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

Recently, DNA specific for Y. pestis was amplified from 16th and 18th century human teeth believed to be French plague victims (Drancourt et al., 1998) and 14th century French Black Death victims (Raoul et al, 2000). The lead authors of these reports now believe that the consideration of any cause for the Black Death other than Y. pestis is now speculative.

Ancient DNA analysis:

The study of aDNA involves the extraction and analysis of DNA from the remains of organisms preserved as fossils, skeletons or mummified tissues. Studies are hampered by extremely low levels of preservation, often coupled by the presence of much greater levels of modern contaminants. Characteristically only short aDNA fragments can be amplified and easy amplification of longer fragments is an indication that contamination has occurred.

In the case of Y. pestis, fatal infection would not be expected to leave any specific bony changes, so no osteological confirmation is available and any retrospective diagnosis is completely DNA-based. Two studies from the same research group reported the successful extraction and sequencing of Y. pestis-specific DNA retrieved from the dental pulp cavities of plague victims. Findings that pathogen-specific DNA can be recovered from this source in systemically infected animals have led Drancourt et al (1998) to hypothesise that teeth provide a lasting, contamination-free refuge where pathogen aDNA may survive.


  • Previous extraction techniques are unsuited to preventing bacterial contamination of the DNA extract. Dental enamel is extremely resistant to diagenesis, but may be permeable to contaminating DNA using both the ‘ground’ and the ‘scraped’ methodologies. Encasing teeth in silicone appears to act as a barrier to movement of DNA between the tooth and the gloved hand and this may explain the reduction in contamination with this method.
  • No evidence of surviving Y. pestis DNA was found in this study, despite the examination of a large number of samples from five mass graves, including two well-documented plague pits and several other probable plague-victim burial sites.
  • Previous studies reported successful direct sequencing from ancient teeth. This implies a low-level of contaminating non-Y. pestis bacterial DNA, despite using a dentine extraction method demonstrated to be contamination prone. This raises two questions:
    1. why such levels of contaminating DNA from other bacteria were found in this study, and
    2. why it was not possible to amplify Y. pestis-specific DNA from samples of plague victims that yield what appears to be authentic human DNA.
  • It is possible that diagenetic conditions in the relatively drier and warmer Southern French locations were more conducive to ancient DNA survival than those of north-western Europe. However, aDNA studies have repeatedly demonstrated an inverse correlation between average temperature, humidity and aDNA retrieval. It is, therefore, surprising that warmer locations would be more successful.
  • An alternative environmental variable is groundwater. An inverse correlation has been noted between sample survival and exposure to water. However the ability to amplify host DNA suggests survival is not an issue.
  • A further explanation is that the individuals from whom the samples derive were either infected by a Y. pestis strain lacking the plasmid-located sites for amplification or not infected with Y. pestis (because they were not victims of the Black Death, or because the infection did not seed the pulp cavity, or because the Black Death and subsequent plagues were not caused by Y. pestis). The first hypothesis is unlikely as the plasmid containing the pla gene is a consistent feature of contemporary isolates. The second hypothesis is plausible. There is no guarantee that bacteria causing a systemic infection entered the teeth. It is, therefore, possible that Y. pestis may not have been present in the teeth specimens but that infection by this bacteria caused death. The third hypothesis is controversial, but cannot immediately be discounted.


Gilbert, M.T.P, Cuccui, J. White, W, Lynnerup, N, Titball, R.W, Cooper, A and Prentice, M.B. 2004. Absence of Yersinia pestis-specific DNA in human teeth from five European excavations of putative plague victims. Microbiology 150: 341-354.

Extinct Marsupial Lion Tops African Lion In Fight To Death

Pound for pound, Australia’s extinct marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) would have made mince meat of today’s African lion (Panthera leo) had the two big hyper-carnivores ever squared off in a fight to the death, according to an Australian scientist.

New research published in the Journal of Zoology suggests that Thylacoleo killed prey rapidly, using its “bolt-cutter” type teeth to scissor through hide and flesh to produce major trauma and blood loss.

By contrast, African lions and similar big cats of today use their bite force to suffocate prey, using a “clamp and hold” technique that can take up to 15 minutes with large prey such as Cape buffalo.

“My results suggest that the marsupial lion employed a unique killing technique,” says research author Stephen Wroe. “It used its massive carnassial cheekteeth to effect major trauma and a rapid kill. Unlike any living mammalian carnivores, the marsupial’s carnassials were not only butchery tools but also active components in the killing process.”

Using a sophisticated computer modelling method [finite element (FE) analysis], that renders dynamic 3D models based on CT scans of the marsupial’s cranial mechanics and musculoskeletal architecture, Wroe has revealed that the creature’s skull, jaw, and head and neck muscles were well adapted to using the unique technique for killing large prey, but not for delivering the prolonged suffocating bite of living big cats.

“The marsupial lion also had an extremely efficient bite,” Wroe says. “In addition to very powerful jaw muscles for its size, its muscle and skull architecture were arranged in such a way as to take greater advantage of leverage than in living cats.”

Wroe, who has published findings about bite force in other hypercarnivores, such as great white sharks and sabre tooth tigers, believes there is now no doubt that Australia’s marsupial lion was a fearsome predator that punched well above its weight.

“Certainly, T carnifex was seriously over-engineered for dispatching small prey. These new findings support the conclusion that the creature regularly preyed on relatively large species and was able to effect quick kills and withstand large forces generated by large struggling prey.

“Hypothetically, had a large marsupial lion ever come face to face with an African lion of similar size, it could have use its deadly cheek teeth and incredibly powerful arms to inflict mortal wounds on the mammal,” Wroe says. “Had it not become extinct, it might now hold top spot over toady’s ‘king of the jungle.'”

University of New South Wales (2008, January 18). Extinct Marsupial Lion Tops African Lion In Fight To Death. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 21, 2008, from­ /releases/2008/01/080117093440.htm

Skeletons believed to be combatants from Battle of Aughrim in 1691

A cache of skeletons unearthed in a small Co Galway village could prove to be the first recorded victims of the 1691 Battle of Aughrim. The discovery has sparked interest from Orange Order officials keen to preserve evidence of the battle, which was a decisive event in the Williamite wars.

Archaeologist Michael Tierney, who was commissioned by the school to excavate the area during work to extend the premises, said the remains were laid east-west, according to Christian tradition, suggesting it was a formal burial.

“We have yet to confirm this but we believe these may have been battle victims – and, if so, the first recorded from the battle in 1691 between the forces of King James II and King William III which claimed 6,000 lives,” he said. “We knew we were within the battlefield site so there was always a chance we would find remains relating to the battle.”

Source: Belfast Telegraph

More about tuberculosis in Homo erectus

Following up the other day’s blog about tuberculosis in Homo erectus, John Hawks, having seen a pre-print of the report, writes more about ‘A new Middle Pleistocene hominid from Turkey‘.