Buried Neolithic Scottish woman is sad case of UK's first rickets sufferer, say archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 21 September 2015

Sea food diet could have prevented problems, skeleton removed from Scottish island of Tiree suggests

A photo of skulls in various positions from the body of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
The skull of the skeleton found on Tiree. Archaeologists say it belonged to a malnourished woman© The Hunterian
Researchers say the earliest case of rickets in the UK, in a Neolithic skeleton discovered more than a century ago on the Scottish island of Tiree, could have reflected the unusual circumstances of a rural woman far from the slums where the disease was often widespread.

Vitamin D deficiency, linked to lack of sunlight, is commonly associated with the urban slums of more than a century ago. The simple burial, likely to have been made by a rural farming community, suggests the sufferer’s physical deformities may have changed attitudes towards her among the local community.

A photo of a light brown breastbone from the body of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
The breastbone of the skeleton© Fiona Shapland
"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,” says Professor Ian Armit, from the University of Bradford, discussing a skeleton discovered alongside at least three other burials during an amateur excavation in 1912.

“There have been a few possible cases in other parts of the world that are around the same time, but none as clear cut as this. While we can’t say for certain that this is the earliest case in the world, it is definitely very unusual.

A photo of a light brown arm bone from the body of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
Arm bones© Fiona Shapland
"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.

“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."

A black and white photo of the skeleton of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
© The Hunterian
Aged between 25 to 30, the woman would have stood between 4' 9" and 4'11" tall – short even by Neolithic standards, and hampered by breastbone, rib, arm and leg problems which would have left her pigeon-chested with misshapen limbs.

Dentine in the woman’s teeth show that she suffered malnutrition or ill health between the ages of four and 14 and was local to the wind-blown Hebridian islands, where the seaweed and salty sea spray gave her high levels of strontium.

A black and white photo of the skeleton of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
© The Hunterian
Experts say a diet of sea fish could have prevented her deficiencies, but farming communities avoided eating seafood during the Neolithic period.

"Malnutrition or illness as a child, lack of sunlight growing up, deformity and disability as an adult and finally a burial without the usual rites afforded during Neolithic times seem to be the sad life history of this woman,” says Dr Janet Montgomery, of Durham University, who has studied original documents from the excavation and analysis of the skeleton.

A photo of a sketch of the body of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
This sketch shows the position of the stones on the grave© The Hunterian
"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.

“It seems especially poignant that these communities had some cultural aversion to eating fish, and yet that simple addition to her diet may have prevented the disease."

A photo of a sketch of the body of a neolithic woman found by archaeologists on the scottish island of tiree
A sketch of the skeleton from the original 1912 dig© The Hunterian
The skeleton is the only one to have been removed from the island, staying in the care of the Hunterian collection at the University of Glasgow.

Archaeologists had previously assumed it dated from the same period as a nearby Iron Age settlement, but recent radiocarbon dating showed it was from between 3340 and 3090 BC.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to see prehistoric artefacts in

Mid-Antrim Museum, County Antrim
Telling the story of mid-Antrim from earliest times to the present day, this museum features historical highlights including the archaeology of prehistoric times and the turbulent medieval period - revealed through fascinating material from the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Ireland.

Palace Green Library, Durham
The permanent exhibition, Living on the Hills - 10,000 years of Durham, uses objects from Museum of Archaeology, alongside objects from across Durham University and other regional museums to explore the last 10,000 years of Durham.

Hull and East Riding Museum
The Bronze Age gallery includes a spectacular display of exquisitely-crafted pottery beakers and food vessels as well as the magnificent swords, axes and daggers which were the luxury goods of those ancient times.
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Probably disease. I am of Scottish descent and cannot absorb Vitamin D. DNA test if possible.
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