Solving a 12,000-year-old medical mystery

Heritage science sheds light on three mysterious stones found in a 12,000-year-old human skeleton.

While excavating a cemetery in Central Sudan in 2013, a team of archaeologists from the UK and Italy unearthed a 12,000-year-old adult male human skeleton that had three stone-like objects within its pelvic region.

Initially, the archaeologists thought that these might be kidney, bladder or gall stones. However, the INES diffractometer at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source found something different. Using the INES neutron beam to analyse the mineral composition of one of the stones revealed that these were in fact prostate stones, caused by a chronic infection. This is surprising because it had been thought that this was just a modern-day condition. However, this analysis has shown that prostate stones are in fact a very ancient problem, despite the fact that prehistoric people had significantly different lifestyles and diets to our own.

Heritage science also enabled archaeologists to deduce the age of these remains through detailed study of the mineral deposition of the bones and radiocarbon dating of the rock and soil at the burial site. Prior to this discovery, the earliest calculi (hard masses formed by minerals in the body) were dated to 6,500 BC but this new excavation provides evidence that these medical conditions date as far back as 10,000 BC. This knowledge may help medical researchers as they continue to investigate the causes of prostate stones.

Read more about the discovery.

This impact case study has been produced with support from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Image: ​​​​​Photographs of the three prostate stones. Credit: D. Usai et al.