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‘.

Tuberculosis in Homo erectus?

Does a Homo erectus fossil recently discovered in Turkey show evidence of tuberculosis?

Well, the paper isn’t published yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. Human tuberculosis is “an acute or chronic infection of soft or skeletal tissues by Mycobacterium tuberculosis or M. bovis” (Aufderheide and Rodríguez-Martín, 1998: 118). The first of these is conducted via droplet infection from human to human, the second through ingesting meat and milk from animals, particularly cattle, or via droplet infection (Roberts, 2000: 151).

Whilst nobody disputes that it is a disease of some antiquity, some of the earliest cases I know about (if there are any older, please do leave a comment with the reference) come from Neolithic Italy (Canci et al., 1996; Formicola et al., 1987). If the news of this new fossil is true, it is a massive leap back in time as far as the known history of the disease goes.

In the meantime, the following blogs raise some interesting points that we need to consider whilst we’re thinking about this topic:

Tuberculosis in an archaic human‘ – John Hawks

Dark-skinned H. erectus had tuberculosis?‘ – Gene Expression

500,000 year old Homo erectus from Turkey, and with Tuberculosis‘ –


Aufderheide, A. C. and Rodríguez-Martín, C. 1998. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Canci, A., Minozzi, S., and Borgognini, S. M. 1996. New evidence of tuberculous spondylitis from Neolithic Liguria (Italy). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 6: 497-501.

Formicola, V., Milanesi, Q., and Scarsini, C. 1987. Evidence of spinal tuberculosis at the beginning of the Fourth Millennium BC from Arene Candide Cave (Liguria, Italy). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 72: 1-6.

Roberts, C. 2000. Infectious Disease in Biocultural Perspective: Past, Present and Future Work in Britain, pp 145 – 162. In Cox, M and Mays, S (eds.) Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science. London: Greenwich Medical Media Ltd.

Exploitation of wild mammals in South-west Ethiopia during the Holocene

Located in the Wolayta, on the south-west edge of the Ethiopian highlands, the mountain site of Moche Borago has been periodically inhabited by hunters for much of the Holocene, especially the 4th – 3rd millennia BC, and the 1st millennia BC and AD. It has yielded numerous animal bones, providing evidence of the evolution of wild fauna and its human use during the last five millennia.

The present day biodiversity of Ethiopia is a poor reflection of its past situation. Climate dessication and human activites have pushed many species from their former habitats. However, palaeoclimatic data show that those changes were moderate and that all environments known during the middle Holocene still exist in the country. For example, the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) living in the Afar rift during the middle Holocene, is no long there today, but is still to be found in the Ethiopian rift lakes.

In all phases at Moche Borago, faunal spectra were clearly dominated by bovids, especially the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), which comprised between 35 and 80% of NISP. Other bovids include the Neotragini, Gazella sp., and Tragelaphini. Four of the five phases included remains of Suidae, whilst lagomorphs were represented in all phases by a single species – the Cape hare (Lepus capensis). The occasional presence of four species of primate, two species of hyraxes, and four carnivores, were also identified.

The faunal spectrum does not reflect the fauna currently found in a shelter half-way up a cliff; species that could have reached such a shelter include porcupine, hyena, hyrax and, possibly, suids and monkeys. However, it is impossible that the dominant bovids, especially the big African buffaloes, could have come to die in such huge numbers in the shelter. Moreover, there are no carnivore gnawing marks and the bone extremities are not chewed. These observations would tend to exclude all carnivores except humans. In addition, those species which could have died a natural death in the shelter had been disarticulated and broken before their incorporation within the archaeological layer. It is, therefore, concluded that all the bones at Moche Borago were accumulated by people, with the exception of a few small mammal bones of ambiguous origin.

The representation of skeletal parts of the African buffaloes indicates that, for most individuals, all body parts were brought to the shelter. Such animals would have preferentially lived in the plain below the site rather than in the mountains above the site, and the abrupt surrounding slopes do not allow the transportation of an entire buffalo, dead or alive (more than 600 kg for an adult), up to the rock shelter. Carcasses must, therefore, have been cut into joints prior to transport.

The consumption of animals is attested by the presence, albeit rare, of cut marks, and by spiral fractures, presumably the result of bones being broken open for marrow extraction rather than from carnivores. However, there is no evidence of roasting in the form of burn marks because most bones had been completely burnt after their deposition by the hot volcanic products deposited over the archaeological layers.

Reference: Lesur, J., Vigne, J-D., and Gutherz, X. 2007. Exploitation of wild mammals in South-west Ethiopia during the Holocene (4000 BC – 500 AD): the finds from Moche Borago shelter (Wolayta). Environmental Archaeology 12 (2): 139-159

The Red Lady was ‘even older’


The Red Lady of Paviland has always been a little coy about her age – but it appears she may be 4,000 years older than previously thought. Scientists say more accurate tests date the earliest human burial found in the UK to just over 29,000 years ago. When discovered in a cave on Gower in the 1820s the bones were thought to be around 18,000 years old, but were later redated to between 25,000 and 26,000. Researchers said it casts a new light on human presence in western Europe.

The skeleton of the Red Lady – actually a young male – was discovered at Goat’s Hole Cave at Paviland on Gower in 1823 by William Buckland, then a geology professor at Oxford University. It owes its name to the red ochre covering the bones.

Dr Thomas Higham of Oxford University said he and his colleague Dr Roger Jacobi of the British Museum had now done further tests and were “confident” of the new results. The remains were found along with a number of artefacts including ivory wands, bracelets and periwinkle shells. “The remains and artefacts were previously difficult to date accurately,” said Dr Higham. “Many of the bones were treated with preservations in the 19th Century and some of this contamination is often difficult to remove.”

He said their analysis was the bones were “just over” 29,000 years old. It would mean The Red Lady lived in an age when the climate was much warmer than it would have been 4,000 years later. Dr Higham added: “The data that we have got now is making a lot more sense.”

He said it was important for “our understanding of the presence and behaviour of humans in this part of the world at this time”. He also said it “might” suggest that the custom of burying people with artefacts originated in western Europe rather than eastern Europe as had previously been thought. “This raises new questions about the way in which these people spread and lived on the continent,” he added.

The remains of the Red Lady are to form part of a new exhibition opening at the National Museum Wales in Cardiff in December. The full findings of the new research are due to be published in the Journal of Human Evolution early next year.

Source: BBC News Online