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
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.