Often the skeleton bears signs of disease or injury that occurred during an individual's lifetime. Not every disease affects bone, but some have highly recognizable effects. These help us to uncover the lifestyles of ancient people, and sometimes to solve mysteries about the identity of recent remains. This study is called paleopathology.
Osteoarthritis This is an inflammation of the joints, accompanied by an erosion of the bone surface of the joint. Often the bone reacts by growing additional bone, or sometimes fusing the joint entirely so that it becomes immobile. Look at the examples of osteoarthritis at this station. What would the effect of the disease have been on the mobility of these individuals?
Healed fractures When bones break, new bone will grow to heal the fracture as long as the bone fragments are in contact with each other. These healed fractures can often be seen as thickened scars, sometimes externally and even more often in X-ray images. If the bone was not set correctly after the fracture, it may heal in a misaligned position.
Cranial deformation Some peoples systematically deform the heads of infants and young children. This can be accomplished by binding the head with cords, strapping the head to a cradleboard, or simply applying pressure on the forehead at regular intervals. The signs of deformation can be highly visible on the skull, and may be strongly valued by cultures that engage in the practice.
Dislocations Related to fractures, sometimes a joint does not set properly after a dislocation. In extreme cases, the joint may form a new articular surface in an abnormal location. Hip dislocations, for example, can cause greatly enlarged or secondary acetabula, or hip sockets.
Osteoporosis Progressive loss of bone density affects many older people in today's societies. This can be identified on the skeleton. Osteoporotic bones are very light, and their trabecular structures may be very fragile.
What to do: This station has several bones with signs of pathology. See what you can identify on these remains.
- Does your skeleton have traces of injuries or conditions that might be detected by a future paleopathologist?
- Think about the ways that the health of the skeleton can inform scientists about other conditions within ancient populations. What kinds of problems would be invisible on the skeleton?