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 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.