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The bent and hunched bones of the woman with rickets. (Images by the journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society)

Stone Age woman with deformities may have been shunned by her community

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A case of possible ostracism because of deformation caused by rickets has come to light in an ancient burial from the Scottish island of Tiree. The remains of the Stone Age woman, buried about 5,000 years ago, show the first known case of rickets in the United Kingdom—and it was a rather severe condition in her case. She was misshapen from the disease, which can be caused by lack of vitamin D.

Researchers say the woman may have had low status in her community and was buried just with some rocks and a single quartzite pebble. Or, it is possible, suggests the team of archaeologists led by Professor Ian Armit, that she was a person of some spiritual status to her people.

Archaeologists determine whether a prehistoric person was of high or low status by the richness or lack thereof of grave goods. A person buried with jewelry, pottery, weapons, artworks and other artifacts is considered to have high status. The more valuable the artifacts, the higher in society the person is believed to have stood. People buried with no grave goods in some cultures may have been of lesser social status. People of high status at that time in Britain were buried in chambered tombs, not just with simple gravestone markers.

This woman’s simple burial and “grave goods”—a paltry pebble—show a particular lack of concern for her journey in the afterlife. The researchers say if she had been a spiritual or religious figure, she probably would have had a more elaborate burial. That led them to tentatively conclude she was of low status or even a despised person because of her deformities.

An X-ray of the curved leg bones of a child suffering from rickets

An X-ray of the curved leg bones of a child suffering from rickets ( Wikimedia Commons )

The researchers, from the universities of Bradford and Durham, said bones in her chest, ribs, arms and legs show signs of rickets. This, they conclude, was from a lack of vitamin D, which the body produces during exposure to sunlight. These deformities gave her a pigeon-chest and deformed limbs, which accounted for her hunched posture in the grave, which was exhumed along with three other burials by amateurs in 1912. She was assumed then to have lived at the same time as the people of a nearby Iron Age community that had been excavated.

Armit and his team speculate she was possibly a slave forced to stay indoors or she wore clothing that covered her completely, preventing sunlight from reaching her skin, the Daily Mail reports .

She was between 4 feet 9 inches (145 cm) and 4 feet 11 inches (150 cm) tall. That was short for a time when women averaged about 5 feet, the researchers say.

Armit and his team recently did radiocarbon dating to determine that she lived between 3340 and 3090 BC, during the New Stone Age or Neolithic period. They also analyzed elements in her teeth to get clues about her diet and found she may have suffered from stress such as malnutrition or disease when she was between 4 and 14 years of age. Analysis of isotopes in the teeth showed she was local to Tiree.

A Neolithic chambered tomb in Kilkeel, United Kingdom; researchers say Neolithic people of high social status were buried in such tombs, not just with a few stones marking the grave.

A Neolithic chambered tomb in Kilkeel, United Kingdom; researchers say Neolithic people of high social status were buried in such tombs, not just with a few stones marking the grave. (Photo by Eric Jones/ Wikimedia Commons )

Neolithic people on the island likely spent much time outside and probably ate a lot of fish. The analysis revealed that she didn’t eat sea fish, which would have given her the vitamin D she would have needed to prevent contraction of rickets.

“The questions remains as to how anyone could have contracted rickets on Neolithic Tiree,' the researchers wrote in their paper. “'Vitamin D deficiency should not be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural outdoor lifestyle and able to metabolise vitamin D - certain genetic conditions can prevent the efficient production of vitamin D, but these are extremely rare.”

It’s possible, they said, that initial illness may have led to her confinement indoors and resulting shielding from the sun, which would have led to a vicious cycle of vitamin D deficiency.

The previous earliest known case of rickets in Britain dated to the Roman era around the turn of the first millennium AD.

Featured image: The bent and hunched bones of the woman with rickets. (Images by the journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society)

By Mark Miller

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