Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ten bonehead interpretations of ancient skeletons

You know the story.  That clickbaity story about an ancient skeleton that seems like it could be true, but you’re not sure because you saw it on Facebook and the photo is grainy and the write-up confusing.  What’s up with those skeletons?  Are they totally fake, or is there some semblance of truth to the story?  I’ve collected — and debunked — the 10 weirdest skeleton stories I could find to help you out the next time a distant acquaintance or long-lost cousin shows them to you as true ancient history facts.

1) Deformed Alien Skulls. Every so often, a news item pops up about skulls so misshapen and conical that they simply must be evidence of aliens. They’re almost always from Peru, which should raise concerns: if all the so-called alien skulls are found in the same place, could it be that there is a better, cultural explanation rather than “aliens”?  Many ancient cultures in South America practiced cranial vault modification (CVM). Infants’ heads were wrapped with cloth or placed on boards, and as the heads grew, their shape changed compared to the shape that normally occurs without binding.  In extreme cases of CVM, the head appears long and narrow, almost conical or cylinder-like. And yes, almost like those crystal skulls from the lastIndiana Jones movie.  CVM has a very long history throughout the world, but particularly in places like ancient Peru, so these skulls are certainly human. Whether the deformation caused any neurological problems is, however, still debated.  And before you think that this is a strange practice, we do still artificially shape our children’s heads,using helmets to help fix infant skull flattening.

2) Ancient Egyptian Dental Bridge. This image of two lower central incisors wired together to make a dental bridge is usually attributed to an Egyptian mummy, sometimes as being 2000 years old and sometimes as dating to 2000 BC.  While the Egyptians did have rudimentary dentistry, it was extremely rare. The most recent scholarly article on Egyptian dentistry shows the two bridges that have been found, and in both, a tooth has simply been tied to another one or two teeth, presumably to stop it from falling out.  The clean drill holes in this pictured example could not have been created in ancient Egypt with the technology that was available.  So where does the image come from? The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore. The “treatment” in the mandible shown here was done at the turn of the 20th century by Dr. Vincenzo Guerini, who wrote A History of Dentistry and who made models of ancient dentistry examples he supposedly saw in his travels. So this example is only 115 years old, not 2000 years old, and definitely not Egyptian.  Whether Dr. Guerini actually saw an Egyptian mummy with this sort of dental appliance is still unknown, as such a mummy does not currently exist.

3) Extraterrestrial Bones. So maybe there aren’t alien bones, but how about Martian bones?  As more people have become interested in space since the Mars Rover landed and started beaming back pictures, there have been more reports of images with objects that look suspiciously like bones in them.  Well, they look like bones to the untrained eye.  But the purported “femur” on Mars looks nothing like the tube-like thigh bone that has an unmistakeable ball for the hip socket joint.  And the purported “hip bone” doesn’t look like the unmistakeably bowl-shaped pelvis that is a hallmark of our transition to two-legged creatures.  There is absolutely no evidence of mammalian life on Mars, but there is plenty of evidence that the human brain mistakes unfamiliar sights with familiar ones — a phenomenon called pareidolia.

4) Pygmies in Tennessee. In the early 1800s, newspapers in Tennessee were awash with rumors of a small-stature, throwback “pygmy race” based on the discovery of hundreds of small, stone-lined burials. The graves were roughly 1 foot wide and 1.5 feet long and contained human skeletal material. Euro-Americans of the time could recognize that many of the bones were those of adults, but they mistakenly assumed the small graves represented small Native people who were buried in an extended, laid-out position.  Rather, the bones were from Native Americans but represent instead a different kind of burial ritual: one in which the body is not immediately buried. Some time after death, the body is flexed, often with its knees drawn up to its chin, and then buried in the small, stone-lined graves. This tradition is often called secondary burial and was common among many ancient Native American tribes. While you might think contemporary research has settled the issue of pygmies in Tennessee, the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis, a “hobbit” hominin species in Indonesia, has revived some people’s claims that pygmies roamed the Earth not too long ago.

5) Evil Twins. The horror genre would be decidedly less scary without evil twins, but do they have a basis in reality?  The medical term ‘teratoma’ literally means ‘monstrous tumor’ and often contains different types of cells that can grow into things that look like bones and teeth. Teratomas are usually present at birth, but not discovered until much later in life when they grow and cause pain in an organ. These tumors are rare, but occur all over the world and even in horses and dogs. A recently published teratoma from Colonial-era Peru included fragments of bone and tissue that looked like really weird teeth. Because of their presence since birth and their ability to form skeleton- and organ-like material, teratomas have occasionally been called “evil twin” tumors.

6) Alien Babies. Speaking of evil twins present since birth, many people believe this skeleton represents the remains of an alien baby.  The Atacama skeleton, or Ata for short, was found in 2003 in Chile. The 6-inch mummy changed hands many times, and in 2013 it was the subject of a UFO docu-drama called ‘Sirius.’ But Ata is not an alien, even if it looks bizarre. It is definitely human, as DNA tests have proven. The question is somewhat open, though, as to why Ata looks the way it does.  Some experts think Ata was born prematurely and then mummified shortly thereafter.  Others think Ata may have had a more dramatic condition incompatible with life, like oxycephaly, severe dwarfism, or other anatomical anomalies. Answers to this question may be found as DNA analysis gets better and genes for more diseases are isolated.

7) Romeo and Juliet Skeletons. Occasionally, archaeologists will find double-burials, with two people in one grave.  This was perhaps more common in the past, as epidemics ravaged populations and could claim several members of one family in the days before modern medicine.  Male and female skeletons with intertwined arm and hand bones are often interpreted as the remains of a loving couple.  There are, of course, alternate explanations that should be considered. How do we know that they were lovers and not, for example, brother and sister, father and daughter, friends, or even strangers? Depending on the burial, the hand-holding part may be less clear: were two bodies crammed into a grave, or were they purposefully placed there?   It’s not unreasonable to think, though, that the bodies were arranged this way by the people who buried them to communicate the deceased’s affection for one another, reflecting in death a sentiment that was present in life.

8) Vampires, Zombies, and Witches. Quite a few news stories have crowed about the discovery of a vampire, zombie, or witch skeleton.  These skeletons are, of course, from regular humans, but the way they were buried is always… irregular.  Collectively, skeletons of people who were buried with iron stakes, stones in their mouths, or face-down are often called ‘revenants.’  The idea is that, in a particular time or culture, a person who was considered different or evil was buried in a strange way, often to prevent that person from haunting or hurting the living. Strange and anomalous burials date back thousands of years, but the ones that are most frequently pointed out are those from Eastern Europe, where vampire lore began. One of the primary explanations for these revenant burials in Medieval times, though, is pretty simple: people didn’t understand diseases very well, and some of these strange burials may have been the living’s way of trying to prevent the spread of an epidemic by ensuring the dead stayed in their graves.

9) Transvestite Priest and Gay Caveman.  Burials that are different from the norm are sometimes sensationalized because of assumptions of gender-bending, but usually simply reflect our modern assumptions inaccurately deployed to explain the past. For example, the rich burial of a woman in Vix, France, in 500 BC has some hallmarks of “masculine” graves in this time period, like the inclusion of alcohol and a chariot. Some have questioned whether the bones are actually those of a woman and prefer to interpret the burial as a male “transvestite priest” rather than as the powerful woman she probably was. Similarly, when male skeletal remains are found with “feminine” grave goods, speculation about gender abounds. A burial in the Czech Republic dating to 2500 BC fits this description, where a biological male was buried with pottery characteristic of the graves of biological females. An archaeologist suggested it was an example of a “transsexual or third gender” grave, and the news media exploded with headlines about the “gay caveman.”  It’s always interesting when a burial is anomalous and doesn’t conform to what we expect to find, but there’s a big leap from that to assumptions about past gender or sexual identity, which are not necessarily the same as modern gender or sexual identity.

10) “Caucasian” Chinese Mummies and a Lost Roman Legion. A series of mummies found in the Tarim Basin in northwest China look very different from what Westerners usually expect eastern Chinese people to look like.  The mummies are tall, many with wavy reddish or dark blonde hair, and with facial features like eye orbits and noses that seem more Caucasian rather than Asian. Are these the descendants of a lost Roman legion that found its way into China in the 1st century BC? The Romans and the Chinese knew about one another, but there was only sporadic contact between them in the early centuries AD. Besides that, most of the mummies significantly pre-date the Romans, with the earliest ones dated to 1800 BC.  From DNA, it seems the people who ended up mummified in the Tarim Basin had ancestors in Europe, Mesopotamia, and India. These early mummies reveal that nearly four thousand years ago, northwestern China was a melting pot of people.

These ten skeletons are most certainly not aliens or vampires, and are probably not transvestite priests either.  The real story behind these ancient bones, though, is far more complex and fascinating.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Ten bonehead interpretations of ancient skeletons”. Forbes. Posted: September 6, 2015. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/09/06/10-bonehead-interpretations-of-ancient-skeletons/

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