Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Eloquent Bones

JS pointed me towards a great article by Theya Molleson called 'The Eloquent Bones of Abu Hureyra'. You get a real sense of the physically demanding nature of the transition from HG to modestly advanced agriculturalist.

The article gives a fascinating insight in to what is revealed by the skeletons of those found by archeologists at site:
  • One of the first skeletal traits we noticed were signs of extra and sometimes excessive strains caused by the carrying of loads, most likely game grain and building materials. The evidence was most conspicuous among the young. If adolescents are required to labor in this way, one can expect changes in the shape of the upper vertebrae. That is what we found. It is also probable that the loads were carried on the head: the hook-shaped parts of the vertebrae in the neck are enlarged, indicating that the bones developed a buttressing support. Otherwise, the neck might have wobbled under the weight of a heavy burden. In some individuals, we found degenerative changes in the neck vertebrae that may have arisen from injuries sustained by bearing weight. These cases were not common. In fact, the general health of the people appears to have been good, except for bone deformities that turned up repeatedly: collapsed vertebrae (always the last dorsal one) and grossly arthritic big toes. These malformations were associated with evidence of muscular arms and legs. Clearly, the bones bespoke a demanding physical activity that was also injurious.

 (Spoiler alert). The bone deformaties were a result of the grinding of flour. Until the development of fermenting and sieving, the grains also seemed to have extracted a price on dental health,
  • The coarsely ground grain had an appalling effect on everyone's teeth One precaution necessary with all grain products except sifted flour is careful sorting to remove hard kernels and small stones. The number of fractured teeth among the early Neolithic people of Abu Hureyra bears witness to a failure to do this sorting effectively and probably to an absence of sieves. For the same reason, awns or glumes from the outer covering of the grains remained in the flour and occasionally became lodged between the teeth, causing gum infection. On the other hand, caries (tooth decay) was rare. Apparently the flour was not sufficiently refined or cooked (if it was cooked) to provide the right environment for the bacteria that cause cavities.Fracturing was only one problem. The grains, even after being pounded and ground, yielded a hard meal that was exceedingly abrasive. Apart from the damage caused by rock powder from the grindstone, the flour itself rapidly wore down the teeth Many people lost teeth at an early age. Moreover, scanning electron micro graphs of teeth from Abu Hureyra show pits comparable in size to those that date stones and other hard objects make on the teeth of nonhuman primates.
 A great article and an incredible piece of investigation.

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