10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell

Natasha sheldon - February 21, 2018

Skeletons can reveal their history in a variety of different ways. Some of those stories can be discerned just from looking at them, as the size and shape of bones can reveal if an individual was male or female, young or old. Damage and trauma marks can add to the skeleton’s tale. A skilled osteoarchaeologist can read bones like a book, with even the smallest blemish speaking volumes about past diseases and ailments- or unnatural death. Finally, the way the living interred the body after its demise can also paint a picture; revealing something of a society’s culture- and the individual’s place in it.

However, there are the secrets that can be drawn out only by digging deeper; by extracting isotopes and DNA to find out more about where the individual was born, where they lived, what they ate- even the color of their skin. In this way, bones can tell us something of the life story of the person they once were- and also the story of the times and places in which they lived. We can catch a glimpse of the challenges life threw at them- and the way they died. Here are just ten fantastic tales told not by words or deeds-but by skeletons.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
The Dali Skull. Google Images.

Human Evolution was not exclusive to Africa

Until recently, East Africa was the accepted birthplace of modern humans. Experts dated remains, discovered at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia in the late 1960s to 195,000 years ago. The discovery earned the area the epithet “The Cradle of Civilization.” However, in 2017 two discoveries challenged not only the notion of East Africa but Africa as a whole as the exclusive first home of modern humans.

In the late 2000’s, archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig re-investigated human remains in an abandoned barite mine at Jebel Irhoud, 100KM west of Marrakesh. Over the previous decades, the site had been yielding various archaic bones. During the latest investigation, the team identified twenty different bones from five individuals. Although the teeth of the ancient remains were large and their skulls elongated, their jaws and overall skull shape resembled those of Homo sapiens more than those of any other hominid species. In fact, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin, Director of the Institute, if the Moroccan hominids were alive today, they would not look out of place on a modern street.

The real shock came with the date of the bones. Two separate dating methods revealed they were between 280,000 and 350,000 years old- far older than the Homo Sapiens bones from Omo Kibish. These dates led researchers to conclude that Homo Sapien’s evolution was occurring all over Africa- not just in the east. It was a theory that was supported by the remains of a 2000-year-old boy found in South Africa. Analysis of his genome showed that the boy’s homo sapiens ancestors split from those of other modern African populations 260,000 years ago.

However, it was the reanalysis of the Dali skull from China, which threw a curve ball at the whole out of Africa theory. Archaeologists discovered the remarkably complete skull in the Shaanxi province of China in 1978. At the time, it was not even examined for Homo sapiens features because it dated to 260,000 years ago. However, in light of the Moroccan discoveries, Xinzhi Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Sheela Athreya of Texas A &M University decided to re-examine it. They found that the Dali skull shared features with the Moroccan skulls 10,000km to the west. The two discoveries suggest that evolution was more a process of ” multiregional population connected by migration and genetic exchanges” than an isolated event occurring in one corner of Africa.

The Dali skull is not the only human skeleton to change its story when subjected to closer scrutiny. The oldest human remains in Britain keep on revealing similar surprises.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Cheddar Man. picture Credit, National Geographical. Google Images

The First Britons were Black

Ten-thousand-year-old Cheddar Man may have been discovered in 1903, but his skeleton keeps on revealing revelations about life in the Mesolithic. The skeleton is the oldest one in Britain of the Mesolithic people who resettled the island 11,000 years ago following the end of the last ice age. Cheddar man’s people are believed to have migrated from mainland Europe, using the Doggerland land bridge which now lies beneath the southern North Sea.

Cheddar Man, as his name suggests was discovered in the vicinity of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. During his lifetime, the area would have been heavily wooded, with a plentitude of game and wildlife to provide for him and his tribe. However, life was still perilous, and Cheddar man died of a fractured skull sometime during his twenties. His people buried him under the floor of Gough’s Cave, one of the largest caves in the gorge complex.

In the 1990’s, scientists extracted mitochondrial DNA from one of Cheddar man’s teeth and compared it to DNA from twenty local volunteers. Two of the test group proved a match- demonstrating that Cheddar man’s family remains in the area millennia after his death. More recently, scientists from University College London have extracted DNA from Cheddar man’s skull and used it to sequence his genome. This more advanced sequencing was designed to reveal details of Cheddar man’s appearance that could not be shown by a facial reconstruction alone.

The results of the tests have been controversial. For although Cheddar man was revealed to have blue eyes and very dark, curly hair, his DNA also showed that he had very dark brown skin. Comparison of Cheddar Man’s genome with other contemporary Mesolithic remains from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg indicate this was a general trait- meaning that pale skin is much more recent than previously supposed.

Lighter skin tones develop to allow the body to synthesize vitamin D via sunlight. Experts believe that lighter skin became prevalent in Europe in one or two ways. Migrants from the Middle East could have been introduced it when they arrived with agriculture during the Neolithic. These eastern incomers, who came in Britain 4000 years ago, already had pale skin, the experts claim because the lack of vitamin D from their cereal-based diet caused their skin to lighten so their bodies could acquire more of the essential vitamin from the sun. However, it is equally likely that the darker skins of Mesolithic Britain’s had already started to lighten as the lack of UV light in the more temperate northern regions could not be absorbed by their darker skin tone.

Other bones from Britain have revealed even more information about another individual’s past-and have helped confirm their identity.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Richard IIi in situ in his grave under a Leicester car park. Google Images.

Identifying Richard III

History tells how following his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, the body of King Richard III was taken to the town of Leicester and put on public display. Later, monks quietly buried his body in the town’s Greyfriars Friary With the dissolution of the Monasteries, Greyfriars was dismantled, and the king’s grave lost under a succession of buildings. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed a skeleton from beneath a Leicester car park. The body was near the spot identified as before the high altar of the friary church- the same place where King Richard was supposedly buried. It also a spinal deformity as did the King. But was it Richard?

To prove the skeleton’s identity, archaeological scientists subjected it to a barrage of tests. Firstly, scientists compared it’s mitochondrial DNA with to two separate descendants of King Richard’s sisters. These proved to be a match. However, the skeleton also revealed a great deal more information about its identity. Isotope analysis indicated that when alive it belonged to an individual who enjoyed a protein-rich diet, especially in the last two years of his life, suggesting high status. That individual had also grown up in Northamptonshire- the childhood home of the last Plantagenet King.

The matches between the skeleton and the life of King Richard did not end there. CT scans showed that the skeleton was the same age as Richard when he died, and radiocarbon dating helped establish its date of death between 1455-and 1540- making it contemporary with the Battle of Bosworth. Then there were the wounds on the body. The head wounds on the skeleton matched the reported manner of Richard’s death. In all, the skeleton had eight injuries to the skull- two of which could have been fatal. These were at the base of the head where the skull showed signs of a halberd blow and a smaller injury that penetrated the skull.

The body also showed signs of postmortem injuries on the skeleton’s face and buttocks. These appear to have been caused by daggers thrust into the body after death. Dr. Jo Appleby of the University of Leicester identified these, as ‘humiliation wounds’; deliberate injuries inflicted on the bodies of the fallen during the medieval period.

DNA aside, the Greyfriars skeleton had revealed that he belonged to a high-status individual. That individual was contemporary with Richard III. They grew up in the same county, were the same age and died at the same time- also in a battle. Finally, their body had been abused and then buried with anonymous honor before the high altar of the same church. It would be fair to say it would be amazing if the skeleton were anyone else but the lost King.

King Richard III’s skeleton isn’t the only one that can be linked to historical events.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Skeletons with shackled wrists from the Falyron Delta Necropolis. Google Images

Cylon’s Rebels?

In 632 BC, an Athenian aristocrat called Cylon decided to make his dreams of ruling Athens come true. With the help of his father in law, Theagenes, the ruler of Megara, the would-be tyrant gathered a small army and seized the Acropolis in Athens From here; he hoped to persuade the people of the city to support him. However, Cylon failed to convince. Athenian forces besieged the Acropolis, and although Cylon escaped, his followers were left behind. Eventually, the rebels’ surrendered -after winning guarantees that the authorities would spare their lives.

However, the archon of Athens, Megacles, ordered the men massacred- despite the fact the men had taken sanctuary at the altar of one of the Acropolis’s temples. This sacrilegious act led to the banishment of Megacles’s clan. However, what happened to the bodies of the pardoned rebels was not recorded. However, between 2012-2016, a necropolis at the Falyron Delta, four miles outside Athens began to yield clues as to what happened to their remains.

Falyron Delta necropolis was a burial site for ordinary citizens in an area close to one of Athens’s smaller ports. While clearing the land ahead of the development of a new cultural center, archaeologists from the Department of Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture found a very unusual burial amongst the single, everyday pit graves of the areas past citizens.

A mass grave of human bones was revealed, containing the bodies of 80 healthy young men. Some of the skeletons were found lying on their backs in a neat row as if they had all toppled backward, while others had been piled into the grave in a jumble. Most had their hands secured with iron shackles. Two vases found in the grave dated the site to the third quarter of the 7th century BC placing the burials between the years 650-625 BC -the period of Cylon’s rebellion.

Head of excavations Dr. Stella Chryssoulaki believes that the men could be the remains of Cylon’s doomed army. The fact that someone had ensured they were buried with respect in an established cemetery does not suggest they were slaves or common criminals. The young men were in good health, but the fact that they were buried together and some were shackled suggests they were victims of a mass execution. Their interment in a respectable necropolis rather than a random pit would reflect the men’s pardon status despite their execution.

The graves of other individuals have revealed interesting information about the expected roles of the different genders – and how those who defied those roles were buried.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Potential corded ware Culture transexual burial from Prague. Google Images.

The World’s First Transsexual?

In 2011, archaeologists from the Czech Archaeological Society uncovered a body identified as belonging to Copper Age’s Cord Ware Culture in a suburb of the Czech Capital, Prague. Experts identified the skeleton as male by the shape of its pelvis. This Cord Ware Culture man died sometime between 2800-2500BC. However, his burial was very strange.

Cord ware culture was widespread across North, central and eastern Europe during the late Stone Age until the mid-Bronze Age. It was an early agricultural culture, which only used copper for jewelry, still relying upon stone for tools and weapons. However, it is famous for its pottery, whose distinctive cord impressions give the culture its name.

Archaeologists have noted that Cord Ware Culture burials follow a very uniform pattern. Both sexes were placed in single graves and put in a crouched position, heads pointing south. Men lay on their right side facing west and were buried with tools and weapons. Women were buried on their left side, facing east. Their grave goods consisted of copper jewelry, and pots and most notably necklaces made of teeth and an egg-shaped container, which was placed near the feet.

However, the burial of Prague man was atypical. He was buried facing east, like a woman instead of west like a man. His grave contained no weapons, only five pots- an unprecedented number even for female graves- and the distinctly feminine egg-shaped container between his feet.

Despite the female orientation of the body, his grave conformed to that of neither sex- opening the meaning of this up for speculation. For it has been suggested that the Cord Ware Man could have been either gay or transgender. Archaeologists believe he was more likely to be a transgender individual: a man who identified as a woman or who undertook a female role in his tribe. Either way, his careful burial, with grave goods does not indicate he was marginalized or outcast because of his differences.

A skeleton from Roman London also shows that human gender has never been straightforward.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Harper Road Woman. Picture Credit: Museum of London Blog. Google Images.

Harper Road Woman

It seems that London has been an ethnically diverse city right from its very beginnings. In 2015, the Museum of London put on display a group of skeletons from the Roman City whose teeth, bones and DNA experts had recently analyzed. Isotopes created by diet revealed fascinating information about the subject’s origins and where they had lived during their lives. One, a fourteen-year-old, blue-eyed girl had lived in London for the last four years of her life- but had been born in North Africa. A male with fatal head injuries and other healed wounds on his bones may have been a gladiator who originated from Eastern Europe and the near east.

One of the skeletons, however, was British born. The experts had no doubt that Harper Road Woman as she was known was that a woman. Her pelvis and skull were the right size and shape, and her grave goods were feminine: jewelry and a bronze mirror of such good quality that it was clear Harper Road Woman was of high status. She was between 26 and 35 when she died, and her DNA revealed that she had brown eyes and hair. However, although she appeared physically female, Harper Road Woman had male chromosomes.

Harper Road woman was suffering from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. This disease means that although an individual appears one sex, genetically they are another. Some individuals display no outward signs of their genetic sex, while others have genitalia somewhere between male and female. The fact that Harper Road Woman was buried with female grave goods suggests that her society saw her as a woman. The only outward sign of her syndrome would have been a lack of periods and an inability to have children.

However, it is possible that Harper Road woman did display ambiguous genitalia but was still accepted and honored in her society. Many ancient cultures have recognized the possibility of duel sex individuals. To the Native American’s they were “two-spirited people.” The Persians also accorded the androgynous an honored and role place in their society. However, crucial to Harper Road woman was the fact that the Greeks also accepted the notion of dual sexuality; with legends telling how early man began as one sex. Roman society undoubtedly would have absorbed this idea, as it did so much of Greek culture.

This precedent meant that Harper Road Woman would have been acceptable within Roman society- and perhaps accorded greater honor because of it. She is the first transsexual to be identified by archaeology. However, more importantly, she is a reminder that human gender and sexuality is not black or white.

Science has not yet revealed everything about the next skeleton’s life. However, his death is a murder mystery.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Murdered Pictish Man from Rosemarkie Caves, Scotland. Google Images

Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Murder or Sacrifice

In 2016, a team of volunteers digging on Scotland’s The Black Isles made a most unexpected discovery. The volunteers were part of the Rosemarkie Caves Project, whose aim was to gauge human occupation of the isles over the last 2000 years. In one of the caves, well below the last known levels of human activity in the early twentieth century was the well-preserved skeleton of a male in his thirties. Radiocarbon dating placed his death between 430-630AD, during Scotland’s Pictish era.

The man had been laid to rest in a nook of the cave, well away from work areas that appeared to be dedicated to iron working. Although he lay on his back, his body was in an unusual position. His legs were crossed and, like his arms had been weighed down with large rocks from the nearby beach. Once his remains had been covered, someone had lain the butchered remains of animal on top of it as a finishing touch.

Rosemarkie man’s burial may have been careful and reverential and precise- however, the manner of his death was violent. Forensic anthropologists studying his skull have reconstructed the attack that killed him. Using an implement, Rosemarkie man’s assailant began his attack with a blow to the right side of his victim’s face that was so hard it shattered his teeth. A follow-up blow to the left broke his jaw. This second blow also sent Rosemarkie man flying backward, causing him to fracture the back of his skull on a hard object on the cave floor.

While Rosemarkie man lay prone, his assailant finished him off by driving the same weapon used to disable him straight through his skull. Then, even though he was now dead, the assailant drove another implement through the top of the head with such force that it fractured the skull.

This postmortem injury, coupled with the violent ‘overkill’ of Rosemarkie man’s death has led excavation leader Steven Birch to speculate that his death had a ritual element. The multiple blows to the head and pinning of the body are reminiscent of the death and burials of bog bodies found in northern Europe. The final blow to the head could have been a way of releasing Rosemarkie man’s spirit. Or it may simply be that the murdered Pict’s body was pinned down to prevent the vengeful spirit of the dead man from pursuing his killer.

An unusual eleventh-century burial on Siberia’s Yamal peninsula also raises questions about ritual in medieval society.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Burials of two of the young women found at Yur-Yakha III. Picture Credit: Siberian Times. Google Images.

Martyrs to their Health?

The climate and conditions of life for the Nomadic peoples of northeastern Siberia life was often hard. It would have been a rare individual indeed who made it to their fifties without having suffered malnutrition and injury at some time in their lives. The remains of many of these people can be found at Yur-yakhal III, an eleventh-century cemetery on Siberia’s Yamal peninsula. Here, the nomads of the region were laid to rest. The bodies in these graves are laid out straight. However, in 2016, archaeologists from the Archaeology Department of the Arctic Research Centre of the Yamalo-Nenets found four burials that bucked this trend.

The graves were of one man around 50 and three young women aged between 18-20. Instead of lying straight, the quartet had been laid in a crouched, fetal-like position. In the case of the male, his burial was even more unusual as his body was briefly burnt after his death. This burning seems to have been deliberate and intended to remove the soft tissues before the burial of his bones. According to senior researcher Andrey Plekhanov, the graves are unprecedented and raise all sorts of questions as to why these four people were interred in such a markedly different way.

One suggestion is that they had health issues that marked them apart from the rest of their tribe. Although all showed signs of the kinds of health problems typical of Yamal Nomads of the era, the number of ailments each suffered from was unprecedented. They included shoulder dislocations, sinusitis and in the women lower spine trauma consistent with giving birth. The male appeared to have suffered starvation since childhood and hyperostosis, a condition where bone tissue cannot stop growing causing some musculoskeletal disorders.

Could the extreme ill health of the men and women have marked them out as unlucky or sacred and so earned them a unique ritual burial? Any sacred element is unclear from the grave goods, which seem to relate to status in life rather than the significance of the individuals at death. One young woman who may have died giving birth went to her grave with only an iron knife while another was buried with a bronze arm ring shaped like a bear, an implement for scraping snow off clothes, a tanning scraper, bronze and silver pendants and a face mask made of animal skin. The burials show the deceased no disrespect; merely that they were different.

Health problems were also an issue for a roman giant from the third century AD.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
The Tibia of the third-century giant compared to one of average size. Google Images.


The Roman Giant

Gigantism is a rare disorder that only affects three people in every million around the world. It begins in childhood when the pituitary gland malfunctions, causing excessive, unchecked growth. Unsurprisingly, it is not something that shows up in the archaeological record very often. Would be giants have been found in places like Egypt and Poland. However, these remains have never been complete enough or sufficiently well preserved for archaeologists to definitively identify the condition.

However, in 1991, the oldest complete skeleton of an individual with gigantism was unearthed from the necropolis of Fidenae, a territory just outside the city of Rome. The body was that of a young man, buried in an abnormally large tomb to accommodate his above average size sometime in the third century AD. Scientists confirmed his gigantism from damage to his skull consistent with a pituitary tumor that could have caused the gland to over produce human growth hormone.

At six foot eight inches tall, the Fidenae giant would have towered over his contemporaries who on averaged did not exceed five and a half feet. A comparison of his tibia or shinbone with an average sized male of the time gives some idea of this difference in height and build. It seems his growth did not stop even when he reached adulthood, as his limbs were disproportionately long.

What would have been the role of such an ungainly individual in Roman society? Simona Minozzi, a paleopathologist at Italy’s University of Pisa has suggested the Fidenae giant could have made his living as a novelty act entertaining Rome’s elite who had “developed a pronounced taste for entertainers with evident physical malformations such as hunchbacks and dwarfs.” Giants would have been even rarer, and so even more sought after as a novelty.

The Fidenae giant died sometime between the ages of 16-20 years old. His early death was probably due to his condition, as a side effect of gigantism is heart disease and breathing difficulties. No grave goods were found in his grave. But his respectful, individual interment in a communal cemetery shows that however, he made his living, the Fidenae giant was not alone in the world and nor was he disrespected.

Finally, some bones show that, no how many millennia separate us, we weren’t so different to our early human relatives.

10 Human Skeletons with Ghastly Tales to Tell
Skull of El Sidron J1. Google Images

Growing up the Neanderthal way

Human childhood is lengthy because of because the development of large, modern brains diverts energy from physical growth. However, by the time they are eight, children’s brains have reached their full size, allowing energy to shift towards physical development. This concentration on brain development during the early years of life means that Homo sapiens young do not reach adulthood quickly – meaning childhood is extended for the sake of more complex brain development.

This phenomenon has long been believed to be unique to Homo sapiens and used to suggest that Homo sapiens brains had an advantage over their hominid relatives because their slowly developing brains were larger and more sophisticated. However, analysis of a 49,000 Neanderthal child found in a cave in El Sidron, Spain, has led to a reconsideration of the uniqueness of the development of the homo sapiens brain- and thus the length of its childhood.

The nearly eight-year-old boy was discovered with other members of his family in 1994. Out of the group of seven adults, three teenagers and three younger children, J1 as he became known had the most complete skeleton- making him perfect as a subject for the study of Neanderthal childhood. The Spanish National Research Council studying the remains managed to glean a great deal from the little boy’s skeleton. J1 was almost four feet tall and would have weighed 57 pounds. He was right handed and wear on his teeth suggested he was beginning to mimic the adults around him to use his mouth as a ‘third hand.’

J1’s skull also showed signs that his brain was still growing when he died. This is different to modern seven-year-olds whose brains are usually fully developed by this age. However, what it does show was that J1 was subject to a similarly slow rate of brain development as modern humans- suggesting that the slow pace of human brain development is not unique to homo sapiens and meaning that Neanderthal childhood was just as long if not longer than modern humans.


Where Did We Find this Stuff? Here are Our Sources:

Who’s Who in the Greek World, John Hazel, Routledge, 2000

Oldest Homo Sapiens Fossil Claim Rewrites our Species’s History, Ewen Callaway, Nature.com, June 7, 2017.

Ancient Hominin Skull from China suggests Humans Didn’t evolve Just from African Ancestors, Kastalia Medrano, Newsweek.com, November 14, 2017

Skull Found in China could Rewrite “Out of Africa’ theory of Human Evolution, Andrew Griffin, The Independent, November 19, 2017.

Oldest Homo Sapiens bones ever found Shake found shake foundations of the human story, Ian Sample, The Guardian, June 7, 2017

Stone Age grave None the less queer for lack of ‘Gay Caveman’. Christian Falvey, Radio Praha, December 4, 2011.

Written in Bone, Dr. Rebecca Redferne, The Museum of London, November 26, 2015.

Introducing Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Period Cave Burial on the Black Isle, James McComas, NOSAS Archaeology Blog

Reconstructing How Neanderthals grew, based on El Sidron Child, Pangaea BioSciences, September 2017

Ancient Roman Giant Found- Oldest complete Skeleton with Gigantism, Christine Dell’Amore, National Geographical.com, November 10, 2012

Britain’s Dark Skinned, Blue-Eyed Ancestor, Explained, Sarah Gibbens, National Geographical.com, February 7, 2018.

Ancient Mass Grave found in Athens seen as Significant Discovery, Ekathimerini.com, April 14, 2016.

Brutally Murdered Pictish Man Brought Back to Life by Cahid Team, Grant Hill, University of Dundee, February 17, 2017.