The skeleton of a small, pigeon-chested woman with misshapen limbs found on the Scottish island of Tiree has been dated to the Neolithic Era. The discovery marks the earliest known case of rickets in the U.K., and is riddled with “unusual” findings. The work is published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.
Rickets is a disease in children caused by a lack of vitamin D and scant exposure to sunlight. The condition results in weakened bones that are softened and distorted, often leading to bowed legs.
"The earliest case of rickets in Britain until now dated from the Roman period, but this discovery takes it back more than 3,000 years,” said Ian Armit, a professor from the University of Bradford, in a statement. “While we can't say for certain that this is the earliest case in the world, it is definitely very unusual.”
What makes this discovery so “unusual” is the fact that the woman was found in a rural region of Neolithic Scotland. Rickets is more often associated with the urban slum-dwellers of Victorian Britain than the sun-drenched folk of ancient farmland. Another archeological oddity was how the woman was interred: She was buried in a simple grave rather than a chambered tomb, which raises questions about how she was treated by her community.
"Vitamin D deficiency shouldn't be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural, outdoor lifestyle, so there must have been particular circumstances that restricted this woman's access to sunlight as a child,” said Armit. “It's most likely she either wore a costume that covered her body or constantly remained indoors, but whether this was because she held a religious role, suffered from illness or was a domestic slave, we will probably never know.”
The possibility that she was moved to the region from another location was dismissed after isotopic analysis, which revealed she was likely a local to the area. This is due to the high levels of strontium she harbored – a characteristic find for ancient communities living on windswept, sea-sprayed islands similar to Tiree.
In a poignant twist of fate, the analysis revealed that although the woman lived near the sea, she didn’t eat fish – an addition to her diet that would have provided vitamin D and prevented her from contracting rickets in the first place.
It is possible that “these communities had some cultural aversion to eating fish,” said Janet Montgomery from Durham University and co-author on the study. During that time, it was common practice for farming communities to avoid certain foods – fish possibly being their aversion of choice.
Further inspection of the bones revealed she was around 25-30 years of age and small even for the people of her time, measuring in at between 4' 9" and 4'11" (145-150 centimeters) in height. Analysis of her teeth revealed she suffered physiological stress, possibly due to malnutrition or ill-health.
The skeleton was found with at least three other burials during a 1912 excavation. Until now, the bones were believed to date back to the same period as a nearby Iron Age settlement, however recent radiocarbon dating revealed an even earlier era: 3340 and 3090 B.C., which fits snugly within the Neolithic period.
Montgomery added: “While there are many questions left unanswered, particularly because the other skeletons from the burial site aren't available for detailed analysis and Neolithic burials are only rarely excavated elsewhere in the Hebrides, we can only speculate as to why a disease linked to urban deprivation emerged so early in a farming community."