May 24, 2024

The story behind Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14

Hunter-gatherers cared for their young.

There is a
wonderful Australian poem
by A.D. Hope about a
thousand-year-old bone found in 1901 in Norway which had been
inscribed with Viking runes. It concludes:

And, in a foreign tongue,
A man, who
is not he,
Reads and his heart is wrung
This ancient grief to
And thinks: When I am dung,
What bone shall speak for me?

Perhaps an anthropologist with a poetic
bent will be inspired to write something similar after reading the
latest issue of the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences
. Hidden under the
exceedingly dry headline of “Craniosynostosis in the Middle
Pleistocene human Cranium 14 from the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca,
Spain” is another tale of ancient grief.

Cranium 14 was discovered in the famous
archeological site of Atapuerca. Scattered throughout several caves
in the area are the bones and tools of the earliest humans found in
Europe. Sima de los Huesos (the pit of the bones) contains the
most interesting findings. This site is located at the bottom of a
13-metre (50-foot) deep chimney which has to be accessed by
scrambling through caves. It contains thousands of bone fragments
belonging to 28 people of both sexes.

No one knows exactly how and why the
bones tumbled there, but it may have been a burial ground. Another
theory is that they were washed there when the cave flooded. No
matter. The point is that more than 30 fragments belonged to a little
girl aged between 5 and 12. She lived 530,000 years ago and is known
to us only as Cranium 14.

Any relics this old offer precious
clues to the lives of our distant ancestors. But when researchers
reconstructed these fragments, they discovered something very
surprising: the child may have been severely mentally retarded. They
know this because she clearly suffered from craniosynostosis, a birth
defect in which the skull segments close too early, producing facial
deformities and interfering with the development of the brain.

The particular skull distortion of the
child in Sima de Huesos affects fewer than 6 in 200,000 individuals
in living humans. It must be very distressing for parents. The head
can be large and misshapen, the eyes can bulge out. The children can
be blind and deaf. Their limbs may be deformed. They may have
seizures and feed poorly. Cranio-facial surgery works wonders and
after many, many operations, an affected child can lead something
like a normal life. Even so, the story of a child with the condition
makes for painful
. Many doctors would advise mothers to
terminate the pregnancy.

Here’s the remarkable thing. The
hunter-gatherer Middle Pleistocene family of Cranium 14 cared for the
child, the researchers say. Otherwise she could not possibly have
survived for at least five years. In the dry-as-dust words of the
article’s authors, “It is obvious that the [Sima de Huesos]
hominin species did not act against the abnormal/ill individuals
during the infancy, as has happened along our own history many times
and in many cultures”.

They go on to say: “Cranium 14 is the
earliest documented case of craniosynostosis with resulting
neurocranial, brain deformities, and, very likely, asymmetries of the
facial skeleton. Despite these handicaps, this individual survived
for >5 years, suggesting that her/his pathological condition was
not an impediment to receive the same attention as any other Middle
Pleistocene Homo child”. ~ London
Telegraph, Mar 31
; El
Pais, Mar 31