5.4.2 Human Health and Disease

Evidence relating to this topic only comes from the human remains preserved in funerary monuments and other funerary contexts.

In the neighbouring region of Argyll and Bute the discovery of the earliest evidence for rickets in Britain in an adult female buried at Balevullin on Tiree is of national significance, not only for identifying this specific nutritional deficiency but also for highlighting the shortcomings of a diet based mostly on cereals and domestic animal husbandry (Armit et al 2015). Future osteological work on human remains found in Highland Region needs to look out for any cases of rickets visible in human remains. Bad crop yields combined with failures in stock management can affect health, and the effects can be exacerbated by the lack of consumption of marine resources, a characteristic noted of many Neolithic individuals elsewhere in Scotland (Richards and Schulting 2006). Other characteristics that can indicate malnutrition, be it on an episodic or chronic basis, have been noted.

Illnesses and the results of wear and tear on bones from hard physical labour, have been noted by Angela Boyle in her osteological examination of human remains from the Strathglebe chamber tomb on Skye (MHG5316). One adult, for example, displays evidence of alveolar pitting which indicates gum disease, as well as the presence of calculus, indicating poor dental care. Another adult’s 7th neck vertebra shows signs of pitting, plus osteophytes, suggesting that that person carried heavy loads and/or was engaged in physically demanding activities. The presence of Schmorl’s nodes on the spine, relating to the herniation of the inter-vertebral spinal discs, has been noted in an individual buried at Embo (MHG11630; Romera nd). Schmorl’s nodes can be caused by a variety of health issues, from falling a long distance to disease and degeneration affecting the spine.

Example of calculus on Neolithic teeth from Strathglebe chamber tomb. ©Angela Boyle

Degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis are a fairly common feature of Neolithic human remains from Highland Region and elsewhere. Archibald Young who, along with Dorothy Lunt (1966) examined the remains from Tulloch of Assery A and B and Tulach an t’Sionnaich passage tombs around Loch Calder in Caithness (MHG981; MHG932; MHG926) noted vertebral osteoarthritis on a probably male adult in their early 30s, from Tulach an t’Sionnaich, for example. Young also noted that the same individual had a tubercular tumour on his spine as well as evidence for a slipped disc (ibid) Degenerative disease has also been noted on some individuals buried at Embo passage tomb (Romera nd). Osteoarthritis has also been recorded on one adult, aged over 40 years, from the midden inside the rock shelter at An Corran, Skye (MHG6497; Bruce and Kerr 2012, 45;  Case Study An Corran).

As for dental health/illness, in common with Neolithic remains from elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, caries and tooth decay is not common, as the diet was not rich in sugar, although it has been noted in some skeletons, for example in an adult buried at Tulloch of Assery B (Lunt in Corcoran 1966, 63). Calculus indicates poor oral hygiene but is a source of information about bacteria and it can also inform on diet. A possible case of enamel hypoplasia – the malformation of dental enamel during the development of the tooth – was noted on an adolescent buried at Tulloch of Assery A (MHG981), and a definite case was noted in another individual in the same passage tomb, aged 14–15 (Lunt 1966, 61, 62). This condition can be caused either by episodes of famine or by measles. Dental attrition and cases of enamel hypoplasia have been noted above. Dental and paradontal disease, with infection that in some cases led to abscesses and the resorption of bone, are fairly frequent illnesses, and in some cases they could have caused death through sepsis. Examples include an elderly individual from Tulach an t’Sionnaich and an adolescent from Tulloch of Assery A (ibid, 58–9); in the latter case, infection could have resulted from damage to the tooth. A dental abscess has also been noted among the individuals buried at Embo (Inkster in Henshall and Wallace 1964, 29).

Traumatic injury is most vividly illustrated by the leaf-shaped arrowhead embedded in an adult vertebra found in Tulloch of Assery B passage tomb (Young in Corcoran 1966, 63); this would been the cause of death. DNA analysis of a petrous temporal believed to belong to the individual in question has revealed that the individual was a female.

Adult human vertebra with tip of flint leaf-shaped arrowhead embedded in it, from Tulloch of Assery B passage tomb, Caithness. ©NMS

The age and sex profile of the individuals found in funerary contexts indicate that death occurred at all ages, from around the time of birth to advanced old age, with most individuals dying in their teens, early adulthood or more advanced adulthood. There are very few examples of old adults; one is known from Tulach an t’Sionnaich (Young 1966, 58), and another from Tulloch of Assery A (Young 1966, 59). While the original osteological reports do not define what is meant by ‘elderly’, it is assumed to refer to ‘over 50 years’.

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