Cemetery gives clue to ancient ailment (1962)

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Cemetery gives clue to ancient ailment

by Walter C Alvarez, MD

Recently, a remarkable cemetery was discovered near York, in northern England. It dates back to the Roman Occupation, around the time of Christ.

Some 290 skeletons from the cemetery have so far been studied with care, and they show that at least 75 percent of the men of that day died before they had reached the age of 40! Few had died a violent death, and there was little sign of malnutrition. The men were stocky and broad-shouldered.

Childbirth would seem to have been hard in those days because only half as many women as men reached the forties. Survival of persons of either sex beyond the age of 50 seems to have been rare.

The commonest disease revealed in the skeletons was arthritis of several types — sometimes severe. At least 50 of the persons had suffered from osteo-arthritis of the spine. Tuberculosis was apparently as yet non-existent. The appearence of some of the bones suggests syphilis, but the disaease could have been the related yaws, which still is common in Africa.

Interesting is the fact that the teeth of these people were much better formed and spaced than are ours today; and out of 5,000 teeth examined, only some 200 showed any signs of decay. As happens with many primitive people, their teeth were ground almost flat, due probably to the presence of hard grit (from rough grindstones) in the flour from which their bread was made. The average height of the men was 5 ft 7 inches, and the women 5 ft, 1 inch.


Illustration: Invasion of Britain by the Romans (date unknown)

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