Panamanian Skulls Reveal Ancient Pearl Divers Suffered From Bone Growth Known As “Surfer’s Ear”

Surfer's ear, as exhibited by bony bumps in the ear canal, are seen in this male skull from Cerro Juan Díaz, Panama. Feature 3.2 (AD 350-600). Raiza Segundo, STRI 

In an analysis of more than 100 ancient adult skulls from the Gulf of Panama, researchers have observed a number of examples of “surfer’s ear”, a condition where a small, bony bump in the ear canal begins to grow after exposure to cold water.

“Bone is a dynamic tissue that responds to external stimuli, so changes in bone structure provide great clues about where and how a person lived and died,” said study author Nicole Smith-Guzmán in a statement. “When I looked at an additional 125 skulls from nine burial sites across Panama, I found seven cases of surfer's ear in males and one in a female skull, all from sites near the Gulf of Panama.” 

Smith-Guzmán believes that the skulls belonged to ancient male divers who lived along the Pacific coast of Panama long ago and probably spent their time looking for pearls and oyster shells that were used for jewelry making. Though Panama is considered a tropical country, the water temperature in its Gulf drops between January and April when northern trade winds force warm water out into the open ocean. Colder water from the depths rises to the surface to replace the warmer water in a process called upwelling, providing nutrient-rich water to sea organisms at the bottom of the food chain.

Trade winds push warm surface water out into the Pacific creating seasonal cold water upwelling in the Gulf of Panama from January to April. Robertson et al 2009./Smithsonian Contributions to Marine Sciences

“We think it more likely that diving in the cold waters of the Gulf caused these cases of surfer’s ear,” said Smith-Guzmán. “Silvery mother-of-pearl ornaments, and orange and purple ones from two large ‘thorny’ oysters in the Spondylus genus were common in burials and comprised an important trade item in the region. Some of these shells wash up on beaches, but by the time Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and other Spanish explorers arrived, their chronicles tell us that expert divers were trained from childhood to dive down to four fathoms to retrieve pearl oysters of desirable large size.”

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