Osteological and Biomolecular Evidence of a 7000-Year- Old Case of Hypertrophic Pulmonary Osteopathy Secondary to Tuberculosis from Neolithic Hungary

  • by Muriel Masson, Erika Molnár, Helen D. Donoghue, Gurdyal S. Besra, David E. Minnikin, Houdini H. T. Wu, Oona Y-C. Lee, Ian D. Bull and György Pálfi

“Seventy-one individuals from the late Neolithic population of the 7000-year-old site of Hódmezővásárhely-Gorzsa were examined for their skeletal palaeopathology. This revealed numerous cases of infections and non-specific stress indicators in juveniles and adults, metabolic diseases in juveniles, and evidence of trauma and mechanical changes in adults. Several cases showed potential signs of tuberculosis, particularly the remains of the individual HGO-53. This is an important finding that has significant implications for our understanding of this community. The aim of the present study was to seek biomolecular evidence to confirm this diagnosis. HGO-53 was a young male with a striking case of hypertrophic pulmonary osteopathy (HPO), revealing rib changes and cavitations in the vertebral bodies. The initial macroscopic diagnosis of HPO secondary to tuberculosis was confirmed by analysis of Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex specific cell wall lipid biomarkers and corroborated by ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis. This case is the earliest known classical case of HPO on an adult human skeleton and is one of the oldest palaeopathological and palaeomicrobiological tuberculosis cases to date” (read more/open access).

(Open access sourcePLoS ONE 8(10): e78252, 2013)
Women in Science: Milking it – How small molecules from ancient pots tell us when humans first started dairying

Julie Dunne began life as an accountant for a construction company. She took to science as a mature student, and now, in her 50s, she is in her third year of her PhD in biomolecular archaeology at the University of Bristol. She is using molecular and isotopic analyses of absorbed food residues from 7000 year old ceramics from the Libyan Sahara to identify the inception of dairying practices in Africa. 

External image

I went to Italy over the summer of 2013. I spent a week in Rome with my friend before spending 6 weeks at a bioarchaeological dig in a small countryside town near Lucca. I had the time of my life and I am so grateful that I had that opportunity. I learned a lot about myself, about the world, and met people that I will never forget.

This photograph was taken in Florence. I was just thinking about that trip and was looking through the pictures I took, then I saw this handsome man.

Raising the roof.


Can ‘Skull Theory’ Reveal Sex of an Unborn Baby?

  • by Stephanie Pappas
“Parents dying to know their baby’s sex before birth can typically find out with an ultrasound at 20 weeks. But if baby doesn’t provide a full frontal view — or if parents can’t stand to wait 20 weeks — any number of old wives’ tales promise to give answers.

The latest of these, "skull theory,” looks to the shape of the fetal skull. Supposedly, boys have larger, blockier foreheads, while girls’ heads are rounder.

As fun as the guessing game might be, however, skull theory is for entertainment value only. There’s no way to judge the sex of a fetus from the shape of a skull on a grainy ultrasound. [11 Big Fat Pregnancy Myths]

“It makes no sense,” said Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist at the University of West Florida. Anthropologists and archaeologists can, in fact, tell the difference between adult male and female skulls — sometimes. But the skeletons of baby boys and baby girls just don’t look that different.

“Until you get to maturity or at least puberty you just don’t get these sexually dimorphic features of the skulls in males and females,” Killgrove told LiveScience.

Strange theory

It’s hard to say how skull theory got started. A few baby blogs mention it, but most of its online fame comes from pregnancy message boards, where moms-to-be post ultrasound pics and challenge each other to guess the baby’s sex from the skull. Increasing use of early ultrasound may drive the trend: Many pregnant posters put up scans from before the 20-week appointment when sex is usually determined.

The ideas underlying skull theory, as found in various online posts explaining the methods, appear to be drawn from anthropological studies of adult skeletons. Male skulls are larger and blockier, while female skulls are more delicate and rounded. The forehead is more prominent in males, and the jaw squarer" (read more).

(Source: Live Science; bottom image: Bone Clones)

The resurgence of description has also been encouraged by the emergence of new techniques and technology. Washburn predicted that the new physical anthropology would develop new techniques as part of its advancement. In fact, new technologies have often impeded rather than promoted a new perspective. Indeed, much of the published work reflects what the philosopher Abraham Kaplan (1964) calls the law of the instrument, that is, ‘Give a child a hammer and everything in their world needs pounding.’ Give an osteologist a CAT scan, and every specimen is scanable.
—  Armelagos and Gerven 2003 - “A Century of Skeletal Biology and Paleopathology: Contrasts, Contradictions, and Conflicts”

Health and the Biological Damage Hypothesis in the Lambayeque Valley: Examining the Consequences of Early Life History Stress in the Late Pre-Hispanic and Colonial Periods

  • by Marisa Anne McKane

“This study evaluates two hypotheses that address the biological consequences of Spanish conquest and how indigenous Mochica responded to early life stress using metabolic stress indicators, non-specific infection, and trauma. The first hypothesis posed that native health outcomes would decline significantly in the postcontact era. Contact inevitably introduced a series of complex cultural, biological, and socioeconomic processes that swept through Northern Peru. The second hypothesis predicts that native Mochica who experienced early life stress would be more susceptible to mortality. In essence, physiological disturbances incurred during early childhood would alter projected developmental pathways to aid the immediate survival of the infant. Consequently, this trade-off would have far-reaching effects on lifespan and the capacity to resist further stress insults. Odds ratios were calculated to determine age-specific prevalence between the Late pre-Hispanic and Colonial periods in the Lambayeque Valley, Peru. Mean age-at-death and life expectancy were calculated for those featuring skeletal stress indicators and compared to those who did not. Surprisingly, precontact Lambayeque exhibited significantly higher prevalence of enamel hypoplasia and porotic hyperostosis. A significant negative relationship existed between presence of skeletal stress markers and reduced age-at-death in the Colonial sample. Through careful examination of the biocultural context, it was determined that residents of postcontact Lambayeque were living in an altered epidemiological landscape. A multiplicity of high-mortality epidemics swept through Lambayeque during this time period and is evidenced by the presence of mass graves, ethnohistoric sources, lack of any skeletal stress markers, and exceedingly high infant mortality. As epidemic diseases are fast acting and leave no trace in osteological material, this phenomenon could promote an underestimation of systemic stress and confound any interpretation of the biological damage hypothesis” (read more/open access). 

(Open access sourceDepartment of Archaeology, University of Sheffield MSc dissertation 2014 via


Alaska’s real life ‘Bones’ scientist puzzles out violence in ancient societies

  • by Jill Burke

“University of Alaska Assistant Professor Ryan Harrod is a bioarchaeologist, a specialty within the field of physical anthropology. His work includes a lot of forensic anthropology. Like the fictional character Dr. Temperance Brennan from the TV drama “Bones,” he’s sometimes called upon to closely study a skeleton to determine what happened to a person who died, or how they had lived. Unlike the TV character, Harrod is generally dealing with much older remains. But the work – analyzing trauma and coming up with a profile of the deceased and how they died–is largely the same.

His work as a bioarchaeologist takes information presented by human remains a step further, and uses the clues they contain to “aid in reconstructing the biology and culture of past populations.” Violence is an aspect of culture that Harrod has studied worldwide. Initially, he focused on past cultures, but now he’s starting to look at how that research fits into modern day society’s experience with and understanding of violence. On Monday, Harrod will give a talk at the UAA bookstore exploring how his research and that of others in his field are helping scientists gain a new understanding of violence against women.

“The goal of my research is to take an anthropological perspective that looks both cross culturally and through time. The value of this is that it offers a way to explain the complexity of intimate partner violence,” Harrod said. In his work, Harrod is able to identify the patterns of violence that occur in a culture, and how that violence may differ from other cultures. Through deeper analysis across cultures and through time, he hopes to get at the “why” of violence. And this is where his work may pique the interest of Alaskans. If we know the “why,” we should be able to attack the root causes of violence” (read more).

***Didn’t read it. Maybe oosik can comment.

(Source: Alaska Dispatch; bottom image: Univeristy of Alaska Anchorage Anthropology)


Tooth wear

“MOLA osteologists have discovered some very unusual lesions on the teeth of this middle aged man from 19th-century London. He has worn away the outer enamel surface of his right central incisor teeth (bottom). Similar wear is evident on the left maxillary central incisor and the left maxillary canine (top). Could this be the result of an occupation? Or even of a pastime?”

***I couldn’t link to the original source cos I don’t have FB so the page timed out.

(Source: Museum of London Archaeology)

Online in 3D: the ‘grotesque beauty’ of medieval Britons’ diseased bones

Digitised Diseases site makes 1,600 specimens available for doctors and members of the public to study for free

“The bones of a young woman who died of syphilis more than 500 years ago, the reassembled jaw of a man whose corpse was sold to surgeons at the London hospital in the 19th century and the contorted bone of an 18th-century man who lived for many years after he was shot through the leg, are among the remains of hundreds of individuals which can now be studied in forensic detail on a new website.

The Digitised Diseases website, to be launched on Monday at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, brings together 1,600 specimens, many from people with excruciating conditions including leprosy and rickets, from stores scattered across various university and medical collections. The original crumbling bones of some specimens now available in 3D scans are too fragile to be handled. The database is intended for professionals, but is also available free to members of the public who may be fascinated by the macabre specimens.

"We believe this will be a unique resource both for archaeologists and medical historians to identify diseases in ancient specimens, but also for clinicians who can see extreme forms of chronic diseases which they would never see nowadays in their consulting rooms, left to progress unchecked before any medical treatment was available. These bones show conditions only available before either by travelling to see them, or in grainy black and white photographs in old textbooks,” said Andrew Wilson, senior lecturer in forensic and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford and the lead researcher on the project He added: “I do think members of the public will also find them gripping - they do have what one observer called 'a grotesque beauty’.”

Some of the conditions were thought to have been almost eliminated but are now on the increase, including diseases of poverty such as tuberculosis and rickets" (read more).

(Source: Guardian)


The Bronze Age Dunstable Echinoid Burial

  • by Henry Rothwell

A couple of notes on the text. When Mr. Smith uses the word ‘Keltic’, he is referring to the period now known as the Iron Age. The woman and child are probably Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. The barrows are not in fact where the Historic Environment Record have recorded them, but lie south-east of this point, either side of the club house of the golf course (see map).

The following text is taken from From Worthington George Smith’s ’Man, the Primeval Savage – His Haunts and Relics from the Hill-tops of Bedfordshire to Blackwall‘ (1894).

In opening the graves found under the round Keltic tumuli on the hills, it does not always follow for certain that the human bones belong to the Kelts of old. I have two skeletons, extracted by myself from round and now ruined tumuli in cultivated fields on Dunstable Downs. Of the age of one of these, a presumed boy, I am uncertain; of the other, a young woman with an infant, I feel sure of being Keltic from its peculiar surroundings.

The boy was dug by me out of the edge of a ruined round tumulus in May 1887, in a cultivated field on the flat downs. The site is a thousand yards south of the five knolls tumuli, but on the east side of the road which passes over the downs. It is tumulus No. 7 on map. The mound was originally 46 feet in diameter. There was originally a central grave and six or seven other graves round the central one. All the graves were small and shallow; none had been excavated into the chalk; the drift only, a foot or 18 inches in depth, had been excavated. After the interments were made, the drift was thrown over the bodies, and a vast quantity of chalk rubble was brought from a distance to make up the tumulus. When the burials in the circumference took place, the drift and chalk rubble were again dug into, but the solid chalk was not touched” (read more).

(Source: Digital Digging)


Pre-Columbian mycobacterial genomes reveal seals as a source of New World human tuberculosis

  • by Kirsten I. Bos, Kelly M. Harkins, Alexander Herbig, Mireia Coscolla, Nico Weber, Iñaki Comas, Stephen A. Forrest, Josephine M. Bryant, Simon R. Harris, Verena J. Schuenemann, Tessa J. Campbell, Kerttu Majander, Alicia K. Wilbur, Ricardo A. Guichon, Dawnie L. Wolfe Steadman, Della Collins Cook, Stefan Niemann, Marcel A. Behr, Martin Zumarraga, Ricardo Bastida, Daniel Huson, Kay Nieselt, Douglas Young, Julian Parkhill, Jane E. Buikstra, Sebastien Gagneux, Anne C. Stone and Johannes Krause

“Modern strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis from the Americas are closely related to those from Europe, supporting the assumption that human tuberculosis was introduced post-contact1. This notion, however, is incompatible with archaeological evidence of pre-contact tuberculosis in the New World2. Comparative genomics of modern isolates suggests that M. tuberculosis attained its worldwide distribution following human dispersals out of Africa during the Pleistocene epoch3, although this has yet to be confirmed with ancient calibration points. Here we present three 1,000-year-old mycobacterial genomes from Peruvian human skeletons, revealing that a member of the M. tuberculosis complex caused human disease before contact. The ancient strains are distinct from known human-adapted forms and are most closely related to those adapted to seals and sea lions. Two independent dating approaches suggest a most recent common ancestor for the M. tuberculosis complex less than 6,000 years ago, which supports a Holocene dispersal of the disease. Our results implicate sea mammals as having played a role in transmitting the disease to humans across the ocean” (read more/open access).

(Open access source: Nature 514:494-497, 2014 via University of Tübingen)


Metrical assessment of cutmarks on bone: Is size important?

  • by E. Cerutti, F. Magli, D. Porta, D. Gibelli, C. Cattaneo
“Extrapolating type of blade from a bone lesion has always been a challenge for forensic anthropologists: literature has mainly focused on the morphological characteristics of sharp force lesions, whereas scarce indications are available concerning the metrical assessment of cut marks and their correlation with the size of blade. The present study aims at verifying whether it is possible to reconstruct the metrical characteristics of the blade from the measurements taken from the lesion.

Eleven blades with different thickness, height and shape were used for this study. A metallic structure was built, in order to simulate incised wounds and reiterate hits with the same energy. Perpendicular and angled tests were performed on fragments of pig femurs, in order to produce 110 lesions (10 for each blade). Depth, height and angle were measured and compared with metrical characteristics of each blade.

Results showed a wide superimposition of metrical characteristics of width and angle of lesions regardless the type and the orientation of blade: for symmetric blades a high correlation index was observed between the depth of the lesion and the angle of the blade in perpendicular tests (0.89) and between the angle of lesion and the height of the blade in angled tests (−0.76); for asymmetric blades in both the tests a high correlation was observed between the angle of the blade and angle and width of the lesion (respectively 0.90 and 0.76 for perpendicular tests, and 0.80 and 0.90 for angled ones).

This study provides interesting data concerning the interpretation of cutmarks on bone and suggests caution in assessing the size of weapons from the metrical measurements of lesions” (read more/open access).

(Open access source: Journal of Legal Medicine 16(4):208-213, 2014 via

Exhibition featuring human skeletons branded ‘moral abuse’

  • by Charlene Wilson

“A claim that a forthcoming exhibition featuring two human skeletons is “immoral” has been vehemently rejected. Voices From the Past: Life and Death in Medieval Dunfermline opens at Abbot House Heritage Centre in the town next month, featuring the human remains of two individuals. 

The bones were unearthed during the early 1990s when new pipes were being laid at the eastern end of the property. Fife Council and Fife Cultural Trust loaned them to Abbot House Heritage Centre, where they remain in storage. The skeletons will be put on show from April 25 by the trustees of Abbot House, led by Abbot House director Dr Devon McHugh, as part of an exhibition that aims to demonstrate, through human 
osteology, the way in which people lived and died in medieval Dunfermline.

The move has been criticised by former honorary past president of Dunfermline Heritage Trust Sheila Pitcairn, who believes the exhibition constitutes “moral abuse”. She said: “It is not good practice to retain human remains. There is a very clear code of professional conduct relating to the treatment of human remains… and, as a past chair and honorary member of Dunfermline Heritage Trust, I object strongly to these skeletons being put on display.” Responding to Ms Pitcairn’s concerns, Fife Council archaeologist Douglas Speirs, who has been heavily involved in various excavations projects at Abbot House over the years, stressed the display of the skeletons would be carried out in a “thoughtful, ethical and professional” manner, and praised the work of Dr McHugh and the trustees” (read more).

***I’m unethical. I often have to force myself to go through the motions of ethicalness but I really do not understand living humans and their bizarre “moral” obsession with dead humans. I know 90% of you on here are hardcore ethical treatment people but…I just don’t get it. 

(Source: The Courier)


The possible correlation between dental enamel hypoplasia and a historic natural disaster in the Roman population of Herculaneum (79 AD – central Italy)

  • by R. D’Anastasio, D. T. Cesana, J. Viciano, M. Sciubba, P. Nibaruta and L. Capasso 

Dental enamel hypoplasia is usually read as a sign of a systematic growth disturbance during childhood. Following the analysis of human teeth from Herculaneum (79 AD, Central Italy), the authors focused on linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH) manifestations in order to delineate a possible correlation between their frequency and distribution and the earthquake that occurred in 62 AD, which is well documented in historical literature. The human remains from Herculaneum were buried at the same time as the Vesuvius eruption and represent an exceptional snapshot of life in the Roman Imperial Age. The Goodman and Rose method (1990) was used for attributing an “age at the moment of stress” for every skeleton in order to delineate the epidemiology of the enamel hypoplasia. When LEH frequency was analysed by age, two different age groups showed relevant patterns of hypoplasia: the first peak was evident in individuals between 14 and 20 years who were younger than 6 years at the time of the 62 AD earthquake, and a second peak was noted in adults of 30 ± 5 years old, which suggests the presence of another stressful event that occurred 10 years before the earthquake, around 53 AD. The bimodal distribution of enamel hypoplasia could be the consequence of two different historical periods characterized by instability in the food supply, unhygienic conditions, and epidemic episodes; our data suggest that the first peak could be related to a decline in health status as an effect of the 62 AD earthquake. The relationship between recent natural disasters and variations in health status in modern populations is well documented in scientific literature. Our research represents the first attempt to correlate the status of health to an earthquake of known date in an archaeological population” (read more/open access).

(Open access source: Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology 70(4):369-383, 2013 via; top image: Rebecca Watts (Museum of London))



Environmental stress increases variability in the expression of dental cusps

  • by Alessandro Riga, Maria Giovanna Belcastro and Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi

“Teeth are an important model for developmental studies but, despite an extensive literature on the genetics of dental development, little is known about the environmental influences on dental morphology. Here we test whether and to what extent the environment plays a role in producing morphological variation in human teeth. We selected a sample of modern human skulls and used dental enamel hypoplasia as an environmental stress marker to identify two groups with different stress levels, referred to as SG (“stressed” group) and NSG (“nonstressed” group). We collected data on the occurrence and the relative development of 15 morphological traits on upper molars using a standard methodology (ASU-DAS system) and then we compared the frequencies of the traits in the two groups. Overall, the results suggest that (a) stressors like malnutrition and/or systemic diseases have a significant effect on upper molar morphology; (b) stress generates a developmental response which increases the morphological variability of the SG; and © the increase in variability is directional, since individuals belonging to the SG have more developed and extra cusps. These results are consistent with the expectations of the current model of dental development” (read more/open access).

(Open access source: American Journal of Physical Anthropology 153(13):397-407, 2014 via


Reconstructing depositional histories through bone taphonomy: extending the potential of faunal data

  • by Richard Madgwick and Jacqui Mulville 

“Reconstructing the sequences of deposition of archaeological material is central to the interpretation of archaeological sites and provides the foundations for how site chronology is understood. Generally stratigraphy provides the most direct evidence for understanding depositional histories. However, in certain instances stratigraphic relationships may be obscured or unobservable and therefore other sources of evidence must be drawn upon for defining deposits and reconstructing sequences of deposition. This is a particular problem at dark earth sites, which are homogeneous in terms of the colour and texture of deposits, and also in artefact-rich samples, which have little sedimentary matrix.

This paper explores the potential of a new approach to the analysis of bone taphonomic data for the purposes of deciphering depositional histories when stratigraphy is unobservable. Integral to this method is rigorous statistical analysis of modification data combined with an assessment of the taxonomic and anatomical composition of deposits, in terms of their susceptibility to modification. This facilitates more confident interpretation of modification patterns, as deposit composition can be discounted from responsibility for significant differences. The approach is tested on a sample area of the later prehistoric midden of Potterne, Wiltshire, UK. Through detailed recording and statistical analysis of bone modifications (weathering, gnawing and trampling), this research demonstrates that bone taphonomy is not only useful for identifying distinct depositional events in apparently homogeneous strata, but can also provide detail on the nature of processes responsible for the formation of the deposit” (read more/open access).

(Open access source: Journal of Archaeological Science 53:255-263, 2015 via