unizeit Schriftzug

Down to the bone

Only the skeletal remains of the man who lived around 4,000 years ago in the Caucasus. And yet still he tells us his story.

Human bones are analysed for externally visible signs of diseases
© Katharina Fuchs

In the laboratory, human bones are analysed for externally visible signs of diseases and injuries, and prepared for genetic sampling.

Dr Katharina Fuchs ensures that he can do so. She is a physical anthropologist at the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB) at Kiel University. On behalf of the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS and the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1266, she examines the bones and teeth from archaeological finds, in order to draw conclusions about the living conditions of people from times long past.

"When researching the past, we often investigate what humans have left behind. In contrast, with the methods of physical anthropology we can give the deceased their physicality back, even if the soft exterior shaping the face is missing," she said. Carefully arranged bones and skull fragments of different sizes are on the table in her laboratory. A dish contains small bones and fragments, which she cleans with a brush.

"When we receive the bones of an individual, we first create a basic profile which includes the biological gender, the age at death and the physical constitution of the deceased. Then we analyse the parts of the skeleton in detail, and derive the osteobiography, i.e. their life history as revealed by their bones," explained Fuchs.

Her particular interest lies in palaeopathology, the study of ancient diseases, the health and the afflictions of humans. The condition of the bones and the masticatory system (chewing apparatus) reveals a great deal: particular strains on the musculoskeletal system and chewing apparatus, malnutrition, inflammatory diseases, injuries, hormonal or tumorous diseases often leave traces. "This is only a small part of what the people have gone through, but at least it’s more than you would suspect," said the scientist.

The skeleton of the man from the North Caucasus has revealed a lot about his life to Fuchs. He lived in the mid to late Bronze Age, in a time that was characterised by a substantial change in the social and economic living conditions, and a complete reorganisation of the social structures. His bones are taken from the Kudachurt 14 burial ground, which scientists from different disciplines have investigated in order to obtain information about the lifestyle, culture and genetics of those buried there.

He died between the ages of 35 and 45. In the lower part of his skeleton, the anthropologist identified abnormalities. The hip joint is enlarged on one side, which is typical of a developmental disorder in childhood or adolescence. In addition, his right femur (thigh bone) - and therefore also the knee - is turned inwards. But that's not all. As an adult, he had a further circulatory disorder on the head of the femur, as well as a fracture of the right femur and another on the back of the skull. "He probably not only limped from childhood and had restricted mobility, but also suffered and survived these severe injuries at an advanced age," said Fuchs to summarise her findings.

His teeth provide further clues about his life. It is known from ethnographic studies that teeth were not only used for chewing, but also as a tool, for example to hold or process materials such as plant fibres. This unusual use of the chewing apparatus led to signs of wear on the teeth, such as ground down surfaces, indentations or polished surfaces.

They are identifiable in many individuals laid to rest at the burial ground, regardless of their social status as determined from their burial objects. This man’s teeth also show these signs of wear. “This shows that he was integrated into these work processes," concluded the anthropologist.

What do all these physical findings say about the person and the community in which they lived? Fuchs explained: "They say something about how valuable this person was to society. Because the fractures that he survived certainly required extensive treatment. He probably only survived his injuries because his fellow human beings took care of him. It gives us an idea of how people treated each other in the North Caucasus around 4,000 years ago. How they treated someone who was physically disabled almost all their life."

Through physical anthropology, what started as a heap of bones has revealed the story of an eventful life, and also a lot about a society and its values.

Author: Angelika Hoffmann