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Journal: International journal of paleopathology


Here we evaluate Bhattacharya et al.’s (2018) recent paper “Whole-genome sequencing of Atacama skeleton shows novel mutations linked with dysplasia” published in Genome Research. In this short report, we examine the hypothesis that the so-called “Atacama skeleton” has skeletal abnormalities indicative of dysplasia, critique the validity of the interpretations of disease based on genomic analyses, and comment on the ethics of research on this partially mummified human foetus. The current paper acts as a case study of the importance of using an anthropological approach for aDNA research on human remains. A critical evaluation of the ethically controversial paper by Bhattacharya et al. highlights how an understanding of skeletal biological processes, including normal and abnormal growth and development, taphonomic processes, environmental context, and close attention to ethical issues of dealing with human remains, is vital to scientific interpretations. To this end, close collaboration with palaeopathologists and local archaeologists through appropriate peer-reviewed journals will add to the rigour of scientific interpretation and circumvent misinterpretation.


Spondylolysis is a fracture of the pars interarticularis, the portion of the neural arch that lies between the superior articular facets and the inferior articular facets. Clinical evidence has suggested repetitive trauma to be the most probable cause, even though morphological weakness of the vertebra is probably also involved. Prevalence is between 3% and 8% in modern populations, while in archaeological samples it varies from 0% to 71.4%. Considering that very little data about this condition is available in past populations from the southern extreme of South America, the aim of this paper is to analyze the spondylolysis in a human skeletal sample from Southern Patagonia and, at the same time, to explore the prevalence of spondylolysis in archaeological contexts around the world to gain a better understanding of the results presented here. The Southern Patagonian skeletal series analyzed here showed a prevalence of 20%, with lower prevalence in the pre contact sample (11.1%) than in the contact period (23.1%). Skeletons from the Salesian Mission “Nuestra Señora de La Candelaria” showed a higher prevalence (25%) than the sample of skeletal remains recovered from outside the mission (20%), suggesting that changes in lifestyle of hunter-gatherers during contact could be implicated in the development of spondylolysis in this sample. A worldwide survey displays a wide range of prevalence figures in American and Asian samples and low diversity between African and European populations. Hunter-gatherers from Southern Patagonia showed similar values to those observed in other American samples.

Concepts: Sample, Skeletal system, Vertebra, South America, Human skeleton, Spondylolysis, Patagonia, Pars interarticularis


Studies of contemporary populations have demonstrated an association between decreased dietary diversity due to resource scarcity or underutilization and an increase in diseases related to poor micronutrient intake. With a reduction of dietary diversity, it is often the women and children in a population who are the first to suffer the effects of poor micronutrient status. Scurvy, a disease of prolonged vitamin C deficiency, is a micronutrient malnutrition disorder associated with resource scarcity, low dietary diversity, and/or dependence on high carbohydrate staple-foods. The aim of this paper is to assess the potential impact of nutritional transition on the prevalence of diseases of nutritional insufficiency in an archaeological sample. Here, we report palaeopathological findings from an Early Formative Period transitional site located in coastal Northern Chile (Quiani-7). The subadult cohort from this site is composed of four perinates who exhibit a number of non-specific skeletal changes suggestive of a systemic pathological condition. One of these is associated with an adult female exhibiting diagnostic skeletal lesions of scurvy. We argue that the lesions exhibited by these perinates may represent maternal transmission of vitamin C deficiency but acknowledge that there are difficulties in applying current diagnostic criteria for scurvy to individuals this young.

Concepts: Nutrition, Vitamin, Dietary mineral, Vitamin C, Malnutrition, Micronutrient, Scurvy, Atacama Desert


Clear skeletal evidence of prehistoric tuberculosis (TB) is rare, especially in children. We describe and differentially diagnose the pathological changes displayed by a five-year-old child, Pollera 21 (PO21) dated to the Middle Neolithic of Liguria (Italy), or 5740±30 BP (Beta-409341; 6635-6453cal BP, 2σ, OxCal 4.2). PO21 shows a number of osteoarticular lesions, mainly of a lytic nature with very little bone proliferation: the vertebral column, the shoulder and pelvic girdles, and the ribcage are involved. Given the nature and pattern of the lesions, we propose a diagnosis of multifocal (or multiple) bone TB. Attempts to detect TB aDNA through molecular analysis gave negative results, but this alone is not sufficient to prove that PO21 was not infected with TB. The lesions observed in PO21 share similarities with other published evidence, such as spinal and joint involvement, and disseminated cyst-like lesions. Conversely, PO21 does not show diffuse bone deposition, such as hypertrophic osteoarthropathy (HOA) or endocranial modifications such as serpens endocrania symmetrica (SES). PO21 adds to our knowledge of patterns of TB manifestation in archaeological skeletal remains, which is especially important considering the variability in types and patterns of osteoarticular lesions seen today in people with TB.

Concepts: Bone, Skeletal system, Vertebral column, Tuberculosis, Human anatomy, Italy, Stone Age, Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures


Osteochondritis Dissecans (OD) is a pathological condition of the subchondral bone and surrounding cartilage of synovial joints, associated with strenuous activity and/or trauma. Reports of OD in archaeological skeletal remains are few and the majority demonstrate low OD prevalence (<1%). A predominantly 19th century skeletal sample from Middenbeemster, the Netherlands, was assessed for OD. The sample included adult individuals of both sexes. There were no definitive OD lesions in non-pedal elements, yet 12.9% of individuals suffered from pedal OD. Few archaeological and clinical reports specify the prevalence of pedal OD. According to the few that do, the Middenbeemster pedal OD prevalence is distinctly high. Several factors could have contributed to this. First, the rural Beemster community was centered around cattle farming, requiring extensive outside work and animal maintenance; thus, increasing the chances of acute/repetitive trauma in the foot. Second, the footwear worn during that period in the Netherlands was the wooden clog. It is suggested that the hard and inflexible clog, which is poor at absorbing shock and limits the movement of the foot, could have resulted in repetitive microtrauma. These two factors combined may have caused a high frequency of OD.

Concepts: Bone, Knee, Joint, Netherlands, Synovial joint, Osteochondritis dissecans, Prostitution in the Netherlands, Clog


This paper presents a case study of a young adult from the late Neolithic Yangshao cultural period site (∼3300-2900 years BC) of Guanjia () located in Henan Province on the Central Plains of China, who has evidence for skeletal dysplasia characterised by proportional stunting of the long bones and a small axial skeleton, generalised osteopenia, and non-fusion of epiphyses. We provide a detailed differential diagnosis of skeletal dysplasia with paediatric onset and conclude that this is likely a form of hypopituitarism or hypothyroidism, an extremely rare finding within the archaeological context. This paper highlights the issues of distinguishing the forms of proportional dwarfism in palaeopathology because of the considerable variation in manifestation of these conditions. Finally, we assess whether there were any health and social implications for this person and community through the consideration of a bioarchaeology of care approach across the lifecourse, burial context, and information on social perceptions of ‘difference’ in the community.


Tooth root grooves and other ante-mortem dental tissue loss, not associated with caries found on or near the cementoenamel junction (CEJ), are commonly termed non-carious cervical lesions. Three main processes are implicated in forming these lesions: abrasion, dental erosion, and abfraction. As yet, these lesions have not been described in non-Homo hominins. In this study, South African fossil hominin collections were examined for evidence of any type of non-carious cervical lesion. Only one individual shows ante-mortem root grooves consistent with non-carious cervical lesions. Two teeth, a mandibular right permanent lateral incisor (STW 270) and canine (STW 213), belonging to the same Australopithecus africanus individual, show clear ante-mortem grooves on the labial root surface. These lesions start below the CEJ, extend over a third of the way toward the apex, and taper to a point towards the lingual side. The characteristics of these grooves suggest the predominant aetiology was erosive wear. In addition, they are extremely similar to clinical examples of dental erosion. These are the oldest hominin examples of non-carious cervical lesions and the first described in a genus other than Homo. Further, the lesions suggest that this individual regularly processed and consumed acidic food items.


The Tyrolean Iceman is the world oldest glacier mummy. He was found in September 1991 in the Italian part of the Ötztal Alps. Since his discovery a variety of morphological, radiological and molecular analyses have been performed that revealed detailed insights into his state of health. Despite the various pathological conditions found in the Iceman, little is known about possible forms of care and treatment during the Copper Age in Northern Italy. A possible approach to this topic is the presence of tattoos on the mummified body. In previous work, it was already believed that the tattoos were administered as a kind of treatment of his lower back pain and degenerative joint disease of his knees, hip and wrist. In other studies, the tattoos of the Iceman have been related to an early form of acupuncture. We carefully re-evaluated the various health issues of the Iceman, including joint diseases, gastrointestinal problems and arterial calcifications and compared them to the location and number of tattoos. Together with the finding of medically effective fungi and plants, such as the birch polypore or fern in his equipment and intestines, we suggest that care and treatment was already common during the Iceman’s time.


We present a rare case of primary bone cancer principally affecting the right humerus of a skeleton from the pre-Columbian site of Cerro Brujo (1265-1380 CE) in Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean coast of Panamá, excavated in the early 1970s. The humerus contains a dense, calcified sclerotic mass with associated lytic lesions localized around the midshaft of the diaphysis. Evidence of systemic inflammation and anemia, likely caused by the cancer, are visible in the form of severe porotic hyperostosis of the cranial vault and bilateral periosteal reactions in the tibiae. Differential diagnosis and future probes of the tumor are discussed. A tooth from the individual yielded a radiocarbon date 150 years later than those of the domestic occupation at the site. Given that it was the only formal burial recovered from the site, and as the individual had such a visible, painful, and rare pathology, this likely constitutes a ritual burial.


This paper explores the potential of analyzing pathological lesions and entheseal changes in the identification of working reindeer.