Rickets is a disease commonly associated with the malnourished slum-dwellers of smog-bound Victorian London. Which is why it came as a surprise for scientists to discover that it afflicted a young woman living a pastoral existence on a Hebridean island more than 5,000 years ago.
Previously, the earliest known case of rickets in the UK dated back to the Roman period. The disease, which affects the bones, is generally caused by vitamin D deficiency caused by lack of exposure to sunlight and nutritious elements found in seafood.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the new findings, unveiled at the British Science Festival in Bradford on Wednesday, concern a skeleton unearthed in 1912 by amateur archaeologists from a sandy bank yards from the ocean on the Scottish island of Tiree.
The skeleton languished in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow until fresh radiocarbon tests dated it from between 3340 and 3090 BC – firmly in the Neolithic period.
According to Prof Ian Armit of the University of Bradford, the discovery raises more questions than it answers. For example, why was the woman – aged 25-30 – suffering a lack of sunlight?
“It might be that she had some other illness that caused her community to confine her indoors, or she could have been a slave,” Armit said. “It’s also possible she wore a costume that covered her body, and this could have been because she held a religious role. But we will probably never know.”
And why be deficient in minerals from fish, when the woman lived by the sea? “They would have been a farming community, growing mainly barley and raising cattle and sheep,” said Armit. “We don’t know why fishing stopped during the Neolithic period, but the people put their efforts into farming, which was obviously very labour-intensive. There may have been religious reasons or cultural taboos which meant eating fish had become a last resort for them.”
Fishing was common in the Mesolithic era but tailed off around 3800BC when farming became more widespread, only returning with the Vikings in about AD800, said Armit.
The rickets came to light when the co-author of Armit’s report, Fiona Sharp, was conducting tests on the skeleton as part of her PhD studies and noticed that the deformities in the bones corresponded to the symptoms of the illness.
Armit said: “We carried out radiocarbon tests but we didn’t believe the results, so we did the tests three times. Then we realised we were looking at a case of rickets that was 3,000 years earlier than any case seen before.”
Full skeletons from the Neolithic era are rare – there are perhaps only 10 or so in existence. Also unusual was the method of burial. The body was interred in a Neolithic “cemetery” with other bones. Only one other site of that kind has been discovered, in Oxfordshire, as most bodies in the era were buried in monumental mounds.
However, further investigation of the other remains is impossible – the 1912 Tiree expedition was run off the island by the local community angry they were desecrating their distant ancestors’ remains, said Armit, and were then probably hidden or reburied to keep them away from other snooping amateur archaeologists.
The research, published in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, was partly funded by Historic Scotland.