Monday 28 April 2014

Bone infection in a Pre-Columbian skull from south Jamaica.

The Taíno people are thought to have colonized the Caribbean Islands by island hopping from northern South America from about 500 BC onwards, reaching Jamaica by around 645-898 AD. They were skilled agriculturalists, introducing crops such as Cassava and Maize from South America and changing the landscapes of the islands they settled, as well as gathering local plants and shellfish and hunting for game and employing a variety of fishing techniques. They developed a technology based upon wood, stone and terracotta tools, as well as numerous art objects, notably in terracotta, plus rock paintings and stone carvings. The Taíno were extinct culturally within 100 years of encountering Europeans; the extent to which they contributed genetically to modern Caribbean populations is uncertain.

In a paper published on the Journal of Archaeological Science in January 2013, Ana Luísa Santos of the Research Center for Anthropology and Health and Department of Life Sciences at the University of Coimbra, Michael Gardner of the Section of Anatomy at the Department of Basic Medical Sciences at The University of the West Indies and Philip Allsworth-Jones of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield describe a Pre-Columbian male human skull from Bull Savannah Cave in St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, which shows signs of an advanced bone pathology, with numerous lessons particularly to the upper part of the skull.

(A) Anterior view of the Bull Savanah Cave cranium with granulomatous lesions in the frontal, orbits and zygomatic bones and (B) In superior view showing cavitating cranial lesions and caries sicca. Santos et al. (2013).

The skull was one of two skulls found at the Bull Savanah Cave location in 1968, along with numerous pottery shards, the other showing no sign of any pathology. The skulls were placed in a 30 cm high and about 4 m2 there was no trace of the rest of bodies, indicating that the skulls were detached from the rest of the skeletons prior to deposition. The skull was radiocarbon dated to between 915 and 1023 AD; a stable carbon isotope analysis (which reflects the diet of the skulls owner when living) was consistent with other Taíno skeletal remains from the same time period. The pottery shards were largely unadorned and therefore of little use in corroborating the date of the site. The cave itself is reached by two low corridors from an entrance situated about 3 km north of Port Kaiser, in St. Elizabeth Parish, on the south coast of Jamaica; the site is not close to any other known Taíno burrials or settlements.

The approximate location of the Bull Savannah Cave. Google Maps.

The skull has numerous lessons apparently from a treponematosis type infection. Santos et al. consider that three different diseases could have led to these lessons; Yaws, Syphilis and Bejel. Bejel is a disease of dry, arid regions, not known from Jamaica, but both Yaws and Syphilis are known in modern populations on the island. Yaws is thought to have originated in tropical Africa, and to have been introduced to the Americas with African slaves in the sixteenth century. Syphilis is generally (but universally) accepted to have originated in the Americas, and previous Taíno excavations have revealed signs of care for apparent syphilis victims, both before and after death. The best evidence for the diagnosis of syphilis in skeletal remains is generally considered to be the teeth, but these are not present in the Bull Savanah Cave skull. Nevertheless Santos et al. consider that syphilis is the most likely explanation of the pathology seen in the Bull Savanah Cave skull.

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