Archive | May, 2013

A Right To Bear Arms: A Traumatically Introduced Ursus Phalanx

31 May

Whilst browsing a recent edition of the International Journal of Palaeopathology I came across this article by Richards et al. (2013) titled ‘Bear Phalanx Traumatically Introduced Into A Living Human: Prehistoric Evidence‘; it is an eye-catching title I am sure you will agree!  Although it is common for skeletal remains to display traumatically introduced pathologies (see Roberts & Manchester 2010 and Waldron 2009), it is rare for palaeopathological case studies to document traumatically inserted foreign objects into a human skeleton, much less so to find a bear claw crushed into a human arm.  Yet this is exactly the case that Richards et al. (2013) document in a female skeleton dating from a Middle Period (500BC-300AD) Prehistoric Californian shellmound site called Ellis Island.

The individual, PHMA 12-2387, was found during archaeological excavations conducted in1906-1907 of the shellmounds that formerly lined the San Francisco Bay area, and the excavation recovered a total of 160 burials from the highly stratified shellmound middens (Richards et al. 2013: 48).  The shellmounds along the San Francisco Bay were inhabited by hunter-gatherers during the Middle Period, who focused their efforts on the near shore marine rich resources.  Interestingly the habitation period of the area at and around Ellis Island reflects occupation, abandonment and re-occupation over a 2000 year long span.  Following the osteological analysis of the nearly complete skeletal remains of PHMA 12-2387, it was concluded that the skeleton likely represented an adult female (biological sex based on pelvic features) aged between 30-40 years old (based on dental eruption and wear stage, epiphyseal and sutural closure, pubic symphysis and joint  surface morphology) at the time of death, who was buried supine with both her upper and lower limbs flexed (Richards et al. 2013: 49).

Now here is the interesting part.  Following the qualitative analysis of the normal ranges of joint and bone surface morphology of other shellmound individuals (N=159) and the comparison of the careful analysis of CT scans taken of the arms of PHMA 12-2387, it was concluded that the upper limbs bones of PHMA 12-2387 were large and strongly muscled, which were representative of a middle aged female who had suffered ‘traumatic injury that involved the left cubital fossa region, both forearms, and the right shoulder girdle’ (Richards et al. 2013: 50).  The right upper limb displays a bending fracture in the mid shaft of the ulna, which was complicated by the non-union of the break during the healing process.  Found within the left humerus cubital fossa was a Ursus (bear) phalanx, which had been driven in by a likely crushing trauma to a depth of 5 to 7mm into the dense cortex of the humeral shaft (See Figure 1).


The CT scans of the upper limbs of PHMA 12-2387, where A represents varying views of both remaining limbs, and B shows the traumatically fractured right ulna and crushing injury of left cubital fossa of the humerus (See Richards et al. 2013: 50 for further information).

The injuries to this individual undoubtedly affected her movement.  The right upper limb would have suffered from problems with restricted range of the elbow joint, and restricted pronation and supination of the forearm due to the non-union fracture, whilst the trauma of the phalanx fractured through olecranon process and likely severed the m. triceps brachii, a major forearm extensor.  This likely resulted ‘in unopposed forearm flexion’, although pronation and supination of the forearm was ‘less affected’, with the bone material adapting to, and reflecting, the changes (Richards et al. 2013: 51).  The Ursus phalanx became fused within the injury of PHMA 12-2387’s left arm, and remained there until her death.

Although hypothetical situations are documented by Richards et al. in a  trauma reconstruction, it is likely thought that the upper limb injuries occurred at the same time as each other, and that the Ursus phalanx represented a part of a decoration (possibly a necklace) worn by the individual in question.  The mechanism of the introduction of the phalanx is likely to have been a devastating crushing injury which rammed the phalanx into the bone, as documented by the surrounding tissue damage.  Richards et al. 2013 (52-53) suggest that the individual was wearing a possible necklace of ‘claws’, with the phalanx having a shamanic connotation or reflecting a high status within the Middle Period horizon cultures.  Ethnographic accounts of Central Californian tribes indicate that shamans were ‘an integral part of the political, economic and legal institutions’ (Richards et al. 2013: 52).  A number of scenarios regarding her possible role within a society are postulated, and although no firm conclusion can be made, the case calls for a unique perspective for a personal osteobiography during the Californian prehistoric period.

Importantly this case study of this unfortunate individual highlights the coming together of the historical, the ethnographic, the osteological and the anatomical.  Whilst the hypothetical situation of the cause of the trauma can be discussed and postulated, it nevertheless stimulates a worthwhile discussion on the role of shamanistic behaviour in prehistoric California and it adds to the importance of understanding the injuries on the living individual, a living osteobiography.  It is an important article and well worth the full read.


Richards, G., Ojeda, H., Jabbour, R., Ibarra, C., & Horton, C. (2013). Bear phalanx traumatically introduced into a living human: Prehistoric evidence International Journal of Paleopathology, 3 (1), 48-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2013.01.001

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010.  The Archaeology of Disease. Stroud: The History Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Online Science: Open Access,The Penny University and Nautilus

11 May

There is no doubt that with the advancement and proliferation of the internet world wide, that the public dissemination of scientific research is at an all time high.  Yet there are still significant challenges and issues in accessing academic research if you are not linked with an academic institution.  Perhaps the most prominent is the frustrating ‘pay wall’ feature of online journals (and now some newspapers such as The Times).  The theory of a newspaper pay wall is that you give loyal customers access to the latest edition, articles and archives, but also keep customers buying the print copy at the same time.  In a market where the profits of publishing paper content are plummeting, market leaders are stretching in new directions, which typically include massively expanding digital content, and employing not just journalists but bloggers, students and members of the public to provide online content.  Revenue is largely gained by advertisements in print media (around 70-80% typically), but many newspapers are struggling to find matching revenue incomes in the digital age.

At this point you might rightly ask where does science, specifically archaeology or anthropology, come into this?

Arguably academic journals are regularly accessed by employed academics and students enrolled in academic institutions.  Journals charge access, via the University, to view the content and research articles within their package.  However there has been a long and substantial argument over open access to peer-reviewed research, with the Research Council UK recently declaring that from last month (April 2013) all peer-reviewed articles reporting work funded by UK research councils must be free to all (full article, including terms and conditions, can be read here).  A recent Spoilheap column in the British Archaeology magazine (2013: 66) opines that ‘those forced  to cadge, nick and mostly fail to read new research, it promises to transform their attempts to keep up- and in the process, revolutionise research and public understanding’.  However Spoilheap makes an important note, stating that ‘wrongly managed, open access could close doors’, as many archaeological organisation’s journals or articles (think regional or specialist societies) are written with the help of capital raised from membership fees.  However if the articles or journals are made available for free, then there is less of an incentive for a person to join a society, and thus make future capital available for peer-reviewed articles from that society.

The individual, as well as the organisation, also has the power to act to enable that their research is read, critiqued and studied.  Many researchers have joined the thriving and bustling Academia community website.  This site has a current potential pool of 3.2 million researchers, many of who use the site to network with individuals with the same research interests.  Most importantly the vast majority of users also upload their research and articles, which are freely available to the public.  Personally I have used this rich article resource when I have not been able to access an article via a journal due to a pay wall.

There are no easy solutions as to how to implement open access and to ease the spread of peer-reviewed research.  It is, however, a time for many organisations to think ahead.

There is, of course, another side to this story.  Namely the rise and rise of freely available information on blogs (such as this).  This is an exciting, vibrant and informative field in which many blogs take unique approaches to spreading research, raising issues, and building collaborative links.  Kristina Killgrove has, in a recent blog post over at her site Powered By Osteons, critiqued a recent article by de Koning (2013: 394-397) on anthropological outreach by blogging.  Kristina raises a particularly important point on the target audience of anthropology blogs, rightly disagreeing with de Koning over his view that the anthropology audience is mostly academic (almost an online feedback loop of researchers, if you will).  (For a more information on the challenges of communication to the public in anthropology I recommend reading Sabloff 1998).  Personally speaking I agree wholeheartedly with Kristina.  The very reason I set this blog up, and continue to write, is inform a general audience of the issues and realities in human osteology and archaeology.

As stated above this is an exciting time in online science and anthropology, and I wanted to share a few sites with you that contain informative and well researched posts.  They also highlight the diverse and changing nature of online content, as blogs often provide content in imaginative and stimulating ways.


Time for a chat (via The Penny University).

The Penny University‘ is one such new website.  The brain child of Alison Atkin, a current PhD student in forensic and archaeological science at the University of Sheffield, the site is based on the idea of old ‘penny universities’, or coffee houses, in England in the 18th century, where individuals of any standing could come and discuss the latest discoveries in science and debate the findings; in essence an alternative form of academic learning.  On Alison’s site a wide range of researchers will be interviewed (both written and spoken) on their PhD projects, current jobs  or future projects, and will include a wide range of disciplines, from biology to literature.  In particular the site interviews people who are asking the questions ‘that we ask everyday (and sometimes questions we never thought to ask)’.

So far there have been two interviews, with the first featuring University of East Anglia researcher Matthew Fenech investigating why obese people are at such a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  The second sees University of Sheffield PhD candidate Linzi Harvey discussing her work investigating dental health in archaeological skeletal populations, and how it might reflect systemic health overall in populations.  Alison has received funding for the site from ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here‘, specifically from the 2012 Wellcome Trust event  ‘In The Zone‘, which highlights the collaborative importance of integrating researchers.  If you are interested in featuring as a researcher and are actively involved in academia  then ‘The Penny University’ wants to speak to you, so drop Alison a message here.  ALison also runs her own rather interesting blog entitled ‘Deathsplanation‘ detailing her PhD research and other topics related ot human osteology,  death and archaeology; it is well worth a look!

Nautilus‘ is a new enterprising online science magazine, where every month a new topic that mixes science, culture and philosophy is chosen, and every Thursday a new chapter to that month’s magazine is added.  It is a lovely format, eloquently designed with engaging illustrations and written for a general audience; it also allows for a wide range of researchers to contribute to the format, and challenges the boundaries of science journalism by including reviews of games, technology and fictional pieces.  The first issue is entitled ‘What Makes You Special: The Puzzle of Human Uniqueness’, with chapter one entitled Less Than You Think’, chapter two ‘More than you Imagine’ and chapter three ‘Beyond Measure’.   Particularly enticing is the Frans de Waal interview on Cosmopolitan Ape, which delves into the researchers thoughts and feelings on primates.   ‘Nautilus’ has received funding from a John Templeton Grant.

What are you thoughts on open access?  Would it credibly damage the academic publishing industry, or should more academic journals implement open access articles?


Killgrove, K. 2013. Is Blogging Really the Future of Public Anthropology? Powered By Osteons. Online 07/05/2013.

de Koning, M. 2013. Hello World! Challenges for blogging as anthropological outreachJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 19 (2): 394-397.

Sabloff, J. 1998. Distinguished Lecture in Archaeology: Communication and the Future of American ArchaeologyAmerican Anthropologist. 100 (4): 869-875.

Spoilheap. 2013. British Archaeology. 130: 66.