MSUToday
Published: Feb. 21, 2012

Ancient Nubians: A hard life

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949 Andy.Henion@cabs.msu.edu, Todd Fenton Anthropology office: (517) 355-5190 fentont@msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. — 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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In a narrow, modest laboratory in Michigan State University's Giltner Hall, students pore over African skeletons from the Middle Ages in an effort to make the bones speak. Little is known about these Nubians, meaning the information collected by graduate and undergraduate students in MSU's Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology Program will help shed light on this unexplored culture.

In a narrow, modest laboratory in Michigan State University's Giltner Hall, students pore over African skeletons from the Middle Ages in an effort to make the bones speak. Little is known about these Nubians, meaning the information collected by graduate and undergraduate students in MSU's Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology Program will help shed light on this unexplored culture.

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