Volume 12, Number 9 January 7, 2005

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Study begins on Stone Age skeleton

By Jennifer Webber
Research Communications

A local television news crew films U of S archaeology professors Chris Foley, right, and Ernie Walker last month as they study 7,000-year-old human bones in a campus lab.

Photo by Jennifer Webber

They may be more than 7,000 years old – and could stand some whitening – but they are “a beautiful set of teeth”, according to one U of S archaeology professor.

Chris Foley led the student group that discovered the teeth along with the rest of a human skeleton in Jordan last summer. The remains, about 800 bone fragments, may prove crucial in revealing information about the individual, and the overall Yarmoukian culture that flourished in the Neolithic era, the latter part of the Stone Age when humans first turned to an agricultural way of life.

“The root should be intact,” says Foley’s fellow archaeology professor and forensics expert Ernie Walker as he inspects one of the molars. If it is intact inside the jawbone, chances of extracting DNA are increased, he explained.

Since arriving on campus in December, the skeleton has been thoroughly cleaned by Walker, a necessary step before further analysis is done. That will include a look at the bone chemistry, which could provide clues to the cause of death, the gender and age of the individual – even his or her diet. But some things are already known.

The small size of the bones suggest the individual was young, likely between 10 and 14, and the teeth suggest the person suffered from malnutrition or disease.

“You can see on the teeth, cross lines – stress lines,” says Foley. “Much like rings in a tree trunk, with disease or periods of malnutrition the enamel stops growing and you get lines going across the teeth. It’s a barometer of health.”

X-rays are expected to reveal similar stress lines in the larger bones.

The bone chemistry work may reveal much about diet, one of the most exciting aspects of the find, said Foley. “Are they eating primarily plant material as we would anticipate? What is the ratio of plant to animal as reflected in protein?”

The Yarmoukian culture existed in a transitional zone between the upland well-watered environment and the desert during a time of transition when a changing climate made it difficult to maintain an agricultural way of life, he said. “We’re inclined to think that agricultural and animal husbandry was a major step forward ... but in this transition phase, these communities weren’t necessarily healthier.”

This year, the bones will be sent to a lab in Florida for carbon-14 dating to determine the precise age of the remains.


For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca


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