Neolithic skeleton is UK’s oldest case of rickets

A recent study has found that a skeleton unearthed on the Scottish island of Tiree a century ago is the UK’s oldest case of rickets.

In spring of 1912, A. Henderson Bishop, a wealthy pig-breeder and amateur archaeologist, led a small team of antiquaries to excavate an area near the town of Balevullin on the northeastern part of the island where artifacts and architectural remains had been exposed by wind erosion. They focused their attentions on an early Iron Age structure and its environs, collecting artifacts like flints and hammer-stones from the sandy soil. While gathering surface artifacts, they came across a flat stone pile under which they found skeletal human remains. A little digging turned up another three inhumations.

The islanders heard about the finds and protested that the team was digging up their ancestors to ship them to a London museum. They reported their suspicions to the Duke of Argyle who told Bishop and his team to leave Tiree without taking anything with them. Hoping for a reprieve, they showed their modest artifacts to the local Factor (estate manager) who allowed them to take their finds, including the first skeleton, off the island. It would up in the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian collection.

Because the inhumations were found near the Iron Age structure, the skeleton was classified as Iron Age. This misclassification proved to be the reason why it has now been properly classified. A recent accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating project by University of Bradford and University of Durham researchers sought to date human remains found at Iron Age sites in Scotland. When the Balevullin skeleton was tested, it was found to be much older, dating to between 3340 and 3090 B.C., late Stone Age, not Iron Age.

The result took everyone by surprise, firstly because it was clear from a visual examination of the bones that this individual had suffered from rickets, a disease usually (but not always) associated with the endemic malnutrition and gloom of early modern slums rather than the fresh outdoorsy life of the Neolithic Inner Hebrides. It was also unexpected because while Britain is replete with Neolithic funerary structures — mainly monumental chambered cairns — with individual inhumations, monumentless inhumation cemeteries are extremely rare. Only one other flat inhumation cemetery in known in Britain: two adults and a child buried at Barrow Hills in Oxfordshire.

The Balevullin skeleton is 68% complete which allowed researchers to determine the individual was likely a woman. She was around 25-30 years old and between 4’9″ and 4’11” tall, very petite even by the standards of Neolithic Britain. Her sternum is severely deformed with a condition known as pigeon chest. The ribs exhibit associated deformations, as do the humerus bones whose shafts are bowed and rotated. The one surviving femur is also deformed although less so than the other bones.

All of these bone deformations are classic signs of vitamin D deficiency. Some of them point to rickets during infancy, and all of them are typical of childhood rickets. Evidence of bone repair suggest she suffered repeated periods of vitamin D deficiency in early and later childhood. This was confirmed by stable isotope analysis.

Strontium, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon isotope analyses performed on a tooth and rib revealed that the individual grew up in the Northern or Western Isles of Britain, so was probably a local Tiree girl. Her diet was based primarily on terrestrial plants and proteins with very little in the way of marine vegetables and fish. As weird as that seems, it is consistent with other Neolithic remains from farming communities on the western seaboard (and with medieval Viking settlers in Greenland). It seems the island life in the Neolithic era did not involve eating much of the abundant fish and seaweed all around them. The levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the layers of dentine in the tooth indicated a major dietary or physiological stress between the ages of four and 14, perhaps a result of weaning or the removal of marine proteins during a period of famine or illness.

Professor Ian Armit, from Bradford University, said: “The earliest case of rickets in Britain until now dated from the Roman period, but this discovery takes it back more than 3,000 years. There have been a few possible cases in other parts of the world that are around the same time, but none as clear cut as this.”

Professor Armit said it was unclear how the woman would have developed rickets.

“Vitamin D deficiency shouldn’t be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural, outdoor lifestyle, so there must have been particular circumstances that restricted this woman’s access to sunlight as a child,” he said.

“It’s most likely she either wore a costume that covered her body or constantly remained indoors, but whether this was because she held a religious role, suffered from illness or was a domestic slave, we will probably never know.”

4 thoughts on “Neolithic skeleton is UK’s oldest case of rickets

  1. Some scholars take the view that the apparent lack of fish consumption by the Vikings in Greenland is an artefact. The Vikings, the story goes, enjoyed their fish and then fed the scraps to their pigs, thus leaving few fish bones for archaeologists to find.

  2. The neolithic one for Tiree is odd: after all the mesolithic people in the Western Isles left huge middens of mussel shells. Perhaps this is indirect evidence that the neolithic people there were not descendants of the mesolithic people, but incomers who did not inherit much of their culture?

  3. In my family, there is a genetic disorder which arose spontaneously in my gggrandfather in the early 1800s. It is autosominally dominant. His siblings and their descendants were all of normal stature, but many of his descendants have short stature, primarily owing to shortening of the long bones, and bowing or distortion of other weight-bearing bones.

    One of the characteristics of the specific disorder in my family is that it somehow disrupts the capacity of the body to utilize vitamin D, thus the classic symptoms of rickets in a well-nourished farm family. Our family was studied in detail by the Johns Hopkins Medical Center to determine the precise location of the responsible gene. They and other researchers have also identified other gene mutations which have related effects.

    Naturally, the first thing I thought of when I read this piece is that perhaps this young woman had a similar spontaneous genetic mutation which caused the apparent vitamin deficiency. If they are able to run DNA on this skeleton, it would be interesting to find out. As I recall, most of the mutations of this sort are in one general location on one chromosome, but that could be old news by now: the study on my family was done about 25 years ago.

    By the way, though my mother, two of her siblings, one of my brothers, and several cousins carried this gene and its effects, I am just normally short, like my dad’s family. I do have a 6 foot brother, though. He sort of stands out in my family.

  4. short, deformed and malnourished. what a short, awful, brutal life. I drink the finest $12 Californian wines, eat the best Wisconsin cheeses and have an abundance of factory farmed fish and meat at my disposal. and I have an iPhone. I love my iPhone.

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