I’ve mentioned before that my research is primarily concerned with the demographic aspects of mortuary practice and that, due to the nature of my data set, I am involved in the assessment of skeletal remains and this includes recording and describing any pathology noted during the course of this. To a hypochondriac like me it is fascinating to have little glimpses into the day-to-day health matters of people who lived during the Neolithic period and to contemplate how their experience of such things would have differed from ours in the modern day.
Take Schmorl’s nodes, for example, which seem quite prevalent in the vertebrae I’ve looked at so far. I know from my day job in the healthcare sector (which, I should point, out is administrative and not clinical) that these protrusions of intervertebral disc cartilage are often incidental findings on spinal x-rays today and are not usually thought to be responsible for back pain per se, but result from conditions that are, such as osteoporosis and Scheuermann’s disease (Resnick, 2002, 1430). Having said that, acute cases can become inflamed and hence painful. Being myself over the age in which these are most usually found in people, for all I know I have Schmorl’s nodes myself. However, as would often also have been the case in the Neolithic, I am blissfully unaware of this potential diagnosis and not knowingly suffering any back pain specifically as a result of them at present.
Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, which is regularly seen in the osteoarchaeological record and has been appearing in the skeletal remains in my study, would undoubtedly have been an unpleasant condition in the Neolithic, as now, causing painful and stiff joints. Without anti-inflammatory or painkilling drugs and indeed the joint replacement surgery available to us today, people probably just had to live with the pain and struggle on in spite of it, limping and cursing as it gradually deteriorated. That is, unless they had effective pain-relieving remedies of their own and there has been some consideration of medicinal drugs and intoxicants in the Neolithic such as opium poppies, fungi and even alcohol (Smith & Brickley, 2009, 134-136) . In a study of health and disease in prehistory, 10.2% of the Neolithic sample, that is 79 out of 772 individuals, were reported as having osteoarthritis. However, the available data wasn’t sufficient to identify the factors behind this joint disease, which could potentially have been due to ageing, occupational activities or trauma (Roberts & Cox, 2003, 70-71).
And then there is dental disease. There is something about tooth pain and the recollection of it that makes me particularly wince whenever I see the evidence for tooth loss or an abscess. Dental caries, calculus and periodontal disease are also evident in the Neolithic. Unfortunately, the inconsistent nature of the skeletal record for the period makes generalisation difficult but it does seem that caries – attributable to carbohydrate-based diets – are less evident than in later periods (Smith & Brickley, 2009, 127; Roberts & Cox, 2003), a finding borne out by evidence for changes in diet and subsistence practices observed over time.
These are just three examples of pathology that have come my way lately and the latter two are enough to make me thank goodness that I live in the age of analgesia, antibiotics and anaesthetic. I hope, for the sake of the Neolithic people (to whom I have become rather attached) that the archaeologists who believe there was some kind of pain relief back then are right.
Resnick, D. (ed) 2002 Diagnosis of bone and joint disorders, 4th ed in 5 vols, Philadelphia, PA: Saunders
Roberts, A. 2016 The Complete Human Body: The Definitive Visual Guide, London: Dorling Kindersley
Roberts, C. & Cox, M. 2003 Health & Disease in Britain: From Prehistory to the Present Day, Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited
Smith, M. & Brickley, M. 2009 People of the Long Barrows: Life, Death and Burial in the Earlier Neolithic, Stroud: The History Press
Walker, D. 2012 Disease in London, 1st-19th centuries: An illustrated guide to diagnosis, London: Museum of London Archaeology