Ancient Nubians: A hard life

Life in ancient Nubia could be brutal. Residents of Mis Island – a remote area along the Fourth Cataract of the Nile River in present day Sudan – were plagued by meager diets, high infant mortality and diseases such as scurvy and tuberculosis.

Angela Soler, a recent doctoral graduate in anthropology, holds a Nubian skull that was cut open, possibly by a sword [Credit: G.L. Kohuth/MSU]
That’s part of the story developing from a collection of more than 400 Nubian skeletons currently housed at Michigan State University, where student researchers in the Department of Anthropology are analyzing the remains. The data they collect could provide a better understanding of this mysterious culture dating from the sixth to 15th centuries.

Angela Soler, who recently earned her doctorate in physical anthropology from MSU, led a group of graduate and undergraduate students in analyzing the adult skeletons last year. Soler found evidence of numerous cases of tuberculosis and some evidence of leprosy.

“Life must have been difficult for these individuals and we see that in the skeletal remains,” said Soler, whose dissertation was based on the collection.

Carolyn Hurst, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, examines the skeleton of a Nubian child. Lining the walls behind her are boxes of Nubian remains on loan from the British Museum [Credit: G.L. Kohuth/MSU]
Trauma was fairly common in the collection, including a skull that had been cut open by a sharp object such as a sword. The trauma could have been the result of infighting or perhaps a Muslim invasion. Mis Island was Christian until about 1400 A.D. when most of the population converted to Islam.

Soler said the population had “the most extreme tooth wear” she had ever seen – the result of the desert sand mixing with their food and grinding away the enamel. “When the tooth gets that worn down, the root can get infected, and that infection can get into the bloodstream and lead to death,” she said.

For food, the population relied on whatever could be grown in the desert, such as sorghum grains and seasonal fruits and vegetables. But unlike Egypt to the north – the “bread basket of the Roman Empire” – the arid land of Mis Island made growing food extremely difficult, said doctoral student Carolyn Hurst.

A diseased leg bone from ancient Nubia [Credit: G.L. Kohuth/MSU]
Hurst, who’s currently leading a group of students in analyzing the child and adolescent skeletons, said there are many newborns and infants in the collection and most show evidence of disease likely caused by nutritional deficiencies.

At the Giltner Hall laboratory where the collection is kept, Hurst held up a child’s skull and pointed out evidence of scurvy, a disease stemming from vitamin C deficiency that leads to weakened and ruptured blood vessels. The skull had several areas peppered with tiny holes – a skeletal response to chronic bleeding in those areas.

“Many people in this culture died young, and infant mortality is one of the biggest indicators of the health of a population because the kids are the most vulnerable,” Hurst said. “They really lived a rough life.”

Source: Michigan State University [February 21, 2012]

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