10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell

Natasha sheldon - February 21, 2018

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Potential corded ware Culture transexual burial from Prague. Google Images.

The World’s First Transsexual?

In 2011, archaeologists from the Czech Archaeological Society uncovered a body identified as belonging to Copper Age’s Cord Ware Culture in a suburb of the Czech Capital, Prague. Experts identified the skeleton as male by the shape of its pelvis. This Cord Ware Culture man died sometime between 2800-2500BC. However, his burial was very strange.

Cord ware culture was widespread across North, central and eastern Europe during the late Stone Age until the mid-Bronze Age. It was an early agricultural culture, which only used copper for jewelry, still relying upon stone for tools and weapons. However, it is famous for its pottery, whose distinctive cord impressions give the culture its name.

Archaeologists have noted that Cord Ware Culture burials follow a very uniform pattern. Both sexes were placed in single graves and put in a crouched position, heads pointing south. Men lay on their right side facing west and were buried with tools and weapons. Women were buried on their left side, facing east. Their grave goods consisted of copper jewelry, and pots and most notably necklaces made of teeth and an egg-shaped container, which was placed near the feet.

However, the burial of Prague man was atypical. He was buried facing east, like a woman instead of west like a man. His grave contained no weapons, only five pots- an unprecedented number even for female graves- and the distinctly feminine egg-shaped container between his feet.

Despite the female orientation of the body, his grave conformed to that of neither sex- opening the meaning of this up for speculation. For it has been suggested that the Cord Ware Man could have been either gay or transgender. Archaeologists believe he was more likely to be a transgender individual: a man who identified as a woman or who undertook a female role in his tribe. Either way, his careful burial, with grave goods does not indicate he was marginalized or outcast because of his differences.

A skeleton from Roman London also shows that human gender has never been straightforward.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Harper Road Woman. Picture Credit: Museum of London Blog. Google Images.

Harper Road Woman

It seems that London has been an ethnically diverse city right from its very beginnings. In 2015, the Museum of London put on display a group of skeletons from the Roman City whose teeth, bones and DNA experts had recently analyzed. Isotopes created by diet revealed fascinating information about the subject’s origins and where they had lived during their lives. One, a fourteen-year-old, blue-eyed girl had lived in London for the last four years of her life- but had been born in North Africa. A male with fatal head injuries and other healed wounds on his bones may have been a gladiator who originated from Eastern Europe and the near east.

One of the skeletons, however, was British born. The experts had no doubt that Harper Road Woman as she was known was that a woman. Her pelvis and skull were the right size and shape, and her grave goods were feminine: jewelry and a bronze mirror of such good quality that it was clear Harper Road Woman was of high status. She was between 26 and 35 when she died, and her DNA revealed that she had brown eyes and hair. However, although she appeared physically female, Harper Road Woman had male chromosomes.

Harper Road woman was suffering from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. This disease means that although an individual appears one sex, genetically they are another. Some individuals display no outward signs of their genetic sex, while others have genitalia somewhere between male and female. The fact that Harper Road Woman was buried with female grave goods suggests that her society saw her as a woman. The only outward sign of her syndrome would have been a lack of periods and an inability to have children.

However, it is possible that Harper Road woman did display ambiguous genitalia but was still accepted and honored in her society. Many ancient cultures have recognized the possibility of duel sex individuals. To the Native American’s they were “two-spirited people.” The Persians also accorded the androgynous an honored and role place in their society. However, crucial to Harper Road woman was the fact that the Greeks also accepted the notion of dual sexuality; with legends telling how early man began as one sex. Roman society undoubtedly would have absorbed this idea, as it did so much of Greek culture.

This precedent meant that Harper Road Woman would have been acceptable within Roman society- and perhaps accorded greater honor because of it. She is the first transsexual to be identified by archaeology. However, more importantly, she is a reminder that human gender and sexuality is not black or white.

Science has not yet revealed everything about the next skeleton’s life. However, his death is a murder mystery.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Murdered Pictish Man from Rosemarkie Caves, Scotland. Google Images

Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Murder or Sacrifice

In 2016, a team of volunteers digging on Scotland’s The Black Isles made a most unexpected discovery. The volunteers were part of the Rosemarkie Caves Project, whose aim was to gauge human occupation of the isles over the last 2000 years. In one of the caves, well below the last known levels of human activity in the early twentieth century was the well-preserved skeleton of a male in his thirties. Radiocarbon dating placed his death between 430-630AD, during Scotland’s Pictish era.

The man had been laid to rest in a nook of the cave, well away from work areas that appeared to be dedicated to iron working. Although he lay on his back, his body was in an unusual position. His legs were crossed and, like his arms had been weighed down with large rocks from the nearby beach. Once his remains had been covered, someone had lain the butchered remains of animal on top of it as a finishing touch.

Rosemarkie man’s burial may have been careful and reverential and precise- however, the manner of his death was violent. Forensic anthropologists studying his skull have reconstructed the attack that killed him. Using an implement, Rosemarkie man’s assailant began his attack with a blow to the right side of his victim’s face that was so hard it shattered his teeth. A follow-up blow to the left broke his jaw. This second blow also sent Rosemarkie man flying backward, causing him to fracture the back of his skull on a hard object on the cave floor.

While Rosemarkie man lay prone, his assailant finished him off by driving the same weapon used to disable him straight through his skull. Then, even though he was now dead, the assailant drove another implement through the top of the head with such force that it fractured the skull.

This postmortem injury, coupled with the violent ‘overkill’ of Rosemarkie man’s death has led excavation leader Steven Birch to speculate that his death had a ritual element. The multiple blows to the head and pinning of the body are reminiscent of the death and burials of bog bodies found in northern Europe. The final blow to the head could have been a way of releasing Rosemarkie man’s spirit. Or it may simply be that the murdered Pict’s body was pinned down to prevent the vengeful spirit of the dead man from pursuing his killer.

An unusual eleventh-century burial on Siberia’s Yamal peninsula also raises questions about ritual in medieval society.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Burials of two of the young women found at Yur-Yakha III. Picture Credit: Siberian Times. Google Images.

Martyrs to their Health?

The climate and conditions of life for the Nomadic peoples of northeastern Siberia life was often hard. It would have been a rare individual indeed who made it to their fifties without having suffered malnutrition and injury at some time in their lives. The remains of many of these people can be found at Yur-yakhal III, an eleventh-century cemetery on Siberia’s Yamal peninsula. Here, the nomads of the region were laid to rest. The bodies in these graves are laid out straight. However, in 2016, archaeologists from the Archaeology Department of the Arctic Research Centre of the Yamalo-Nenets found four burials that bucked this trend.

The graves were of one man around 50 and three young women aged between 18-20. Instead of lying straight, the quartet had been laid in a crouched, fetal-like position. In the case of the male, his burial was even more unusual as his body was briefly burnt after his death. This burning seems to have been deliberate and intended to remove the soft tissues before the burial of his bones. According to senior researcher Andrey Plekhanov, the graves are unprecedented and raise all sorts of questions as to why these four people were interred in such a markedly different way.

One suggestion is that they had health issues that marked them apart from the rest of their tribe. Although all showed signs of the kinds of health problems typical of Yamal Nomads of the era, the number of ailments each suffered from was unprecedented. They included shoulder dislocations, sinusitis and in the women lower spine trauma consistent with giving birth. The male appeared to have suffered starvation since childhood and hyperostosis, a condition where bone tissue cannot stop growing causing some musculoskeletal disorders.

Could the extreme ill health of the men and women have marked them out as unlucky or sacred and so earned them a unique ritual burial? Any sacred element is unclear from the grave goods, which seem to relate to status in life rather than the significance of the individuals at death. One young woman who may have died giving birth went to her grave with only an iron knife while another was buried with a bronze arm ring shaped like a bear, an implement for scraping snow off clothes, a tanning scraper, bronze and silver pendants and a face mask made of animal skin. The burials show the deceased no disrespect; merely that they were different.

Health problems were also an issue for a roman giant from the third century AD.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
The Tibia of the third-century giant compared to one of average size. Google Images.

 

The Roman Giant

Gigantism is a rare disorder that only affects three people in every million around the world. It begins in childhood when the pituitary gland malfunctions, causing excessive, unchecked growth. Unsurprisingly, it is not something that shows up in the archaeological record very often. Would be giants have been found in places like Egypt and Poland. However, these remains have never been complete enough or sufficiently well preserved for archaeologists to definitively identify the condition.

However, in 1991, the oldest complete skeleton of an individual with gigantism was unearthed from the necropolis of Fidenae, a territory just outside the city of Rome. The body was that of a young man, buried in an abnormally large tomb to accommodate his above average size sometime in the third century AD. Scientists confirmed his gigantism from damage to his skull consistent with a pituitary tumor that could have caused the gland to over produce human growth hormone.

At six foot eight inches tall, the Fidenae giant would have towered over his contemporaries who on averaged did not exceed five and a half feet. A comparison of his tibia or shinbone with an average sized male of the time gives some idea of this difference in height and build. It seems his growth did not stop even when he reached adulthood, as his limbs were disproportionately long.

What would have been the role of such an ungainly individual in Roman society? Simona Minozzi, a paleopathologist at Italy’s University of Pisa has suggested the Fidenae giant could have made his living as a novelty act entertaining Rome’s elite who had “developed a pronounced taste for entertainers with evident physical malformations such as hunchbacks and dwarfs.” Giants would have been even rarer, and so even more sought after as a novelty.

The Fidenae giant died sometime between the ages of 16-20 years old. His early death was probably due to his condition, as a side effect of gigantism is heart disease and breathing difficulties. No grave goods were found in his grave. But his respectful, individual interment in a communal cemetery shows that however, he made his living, the Fidenae giant was not alone in the world and nor was he disrespected.

Finally, some bones show that, no how many millennia separate us, we weren’t so different to our early human relatives.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Skull of El Sidron J1. Google Images

Growing up the Neanderthal way

Human childhood is lengthy because of because the development of large, modern brains diverts energy from physical growth. However, by the time they are eight, children’s brains have reached their full size, allowing energy to shift towards physical development. This concentration on brain development during the early years of life means that Homo sapiens young do not reach adulthood quickly – meaning childhood is extended for the sake of more complex brain development.

This phenomenon has long been believed to be unique to Homo sapiens and used to suggest that Homo sapiens brains had an advantage over their hominid relatives because their slowly developing brains were larger and more sophisticated. However, analysis of a 49,000 Neanderthal child found in a cave in El Sidron, Spain, has led to a reconsideration of the uniqueness of the development of the homo sapiens brain- and thus the length of its childhood.

The nearly eight-year-old boy was discovered with other members of his family in 1994. Out of the group of seven adults, three teenagers and three younger children, J1 as he became known had the most complete skeleton- making him perfect as a subject for the study of Neanderthal childhood. The Spanish National Research Council studying the remains managed to glean a great deal from the little boy’s skeleton. J1 was almost four feet tall and would have weighed 57 pounds. He was right handed and wear on his teeth suggested he was beginning to mimic the adults around him to use his mouth as a ‘third hand.’

J1’s skull also showed signs that his brain was still growing when he died. This is different to modern seven-year-olds whose brains are usually fully developed by this age. However, what it does show was that J1 was subject to a similarly slow rate of brain development as modern humans- suggesting that the slow pace of human brain development is not unique to homo sapiens and meaning that Neanderthal childhood was just as long if not longer than modern humans.

 

Where Did We Find this Stuff? Here are Our Sources:

Who’s Who in the Greek World, John Hazel, Routledge, 2000

Oldest Homo Sapiens Fossil Claim Rewrites our Species’s History, Ewen Callaway, Nature.com, June 7, 2017.

Ancient Hominin Skull from China suggests Humans Didn’t evolve Just from African Ancestors, Kastalia Medrano, Newsweek.com, November 14, 2017

Skull Found in China could Rewrite “Out of Africa’ theory of Human Evolution, Andrew Griffin, The Independent, November 19, 2017.

Oldest Homo Sapiens bones ever found Shake found shake foundations of the human story, Ian Sample, The Guardian, June 7, 2017

Stone Age grave None the less queer for lack of ‘Gay Caveman’. Christian Falvey, Radio Praha, December 4, 2011.

Written in Bone, Dr. Rebecca Redferne, The Museum of London, November 26, 2015.

Introducing Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Period Cave Burial on the Black Isle, James McComas, NOSAS Archaeology Blog

Reconstructing How Neanderthals grew, based on El Sidron Child, Pangaea BioSciences, September 2017

Ancient Roman Giant Found- Oldest complete Skeleton with Gigantism, Christine Dell’Amore, National Geographical.com, November 10, 2012

Britain’s Dark Skinned, Blue-Eyed Ancestor, Explained, Sarah Gibbens, National Geographical.com, February 7, 2018.

Ancient Mass Grave found in Athens seen as Significant Discovery, Ekathimerini.com, April 14, 2016.

Brutally Murdered Pictish Man Brought Back to Life by Cahid Team, Grant Hill, University of Dundee, February 17, 2017.

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