Researchers explore lives of medieval Nubians from hundreds of skeletons

Research being carried out on the remains of hundreds of men, women and children from medieval Nubia has revealed they 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.

The skeletons were excavated from Mis Island – a remote area along the Fourth Cataract of the Nile River in present day Sudan. Angela Soler, who recently earned her doctorate in physical anthropology from Michigan State University, 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.”

The 409 skeletons – dating from the sixth to 15th centuries – were rescued several years ago from gravesites on Mis Island, located along the Nile River in present day Sudan, before the region became a dam. The collection is on loan to MSU from the prestigious British Museum.

Having direct access to a large, well-preserved set of ancient remains is rare for college students. The research experience provides a major advantage for Michigan State University students looking to become professional anthropologists or forensic scientists.

“There aren’t a lot of programs from across the world that have a collection like this,” said Todd Fenton, associate professor in the Michigan State University Department of Anthropology and director of the Nubian bones project. “It gives our graduate students an amazing research platform and also provides exciting opportunities for our undergraduate students.”

For years, Fenton and his students have worked with personnel from the British Museum on excavations in Albania. In the mid-2000s, when the massive Merowe Dam was being built in an area known as the Fourth Cataract of the Nile River, Derek Welsby from the museum turned to Fenton for help in excavating the medieval Nubian remains.

Four Michigan State University graduate students – Cate Bird, Lindsey Jenny, Tracey Tichnell and Andrea Clowes – traveled to Sudan to assist with the three-month excavation in early 2007. The work was undertaken by the Sudan Archaeological Research Society in collaboration with the British Museum.

Under the brutal African sun, the Michigan State University students, with help from museum fieldworkers and Sudanese citizens, carefully removed the skeletons from their burial sites, conducted a preliminary analysis of the bones, then boxed them up and shipped them to the British Museum in London.

“I jumped at the opportunity to go to Sudan and see a region of the world that’s not very accessible,” said Bird, a doctoral student in anthropology. “We usually just see bones in the laboratory. To be able to have such a hand in excavating them and making sure they were handled properly and cared for was important to me.”

The skeletons remained at the museum until May 2010, when they came to Michigan State University through a five-year loan. After cleaning and cataloguing the skeletons, a group of students spent the first academic year studying the adult skeletons. The information collected is entered into a database run by the British Museum, which is analyzing another set of remains from Mis Island.

“We were extremely pleased to team up with MSU because of the unbridled enthusiasm of both Dr. Fenton and his students,” said Welsby, assistant keeper in the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. “This is an ideal scenario in that we get the basic skeletal report to integrate into our final report on all aspects of the work at the Fourth Cataract while the students get the raw material to study.”

Margaret Zywicki, a senior anthropology major from metro Detroit, worked in the Giltner Hall lab from the beginning – “when the bones were in boxes covered with dirt” – and is now applying to graduate schools.

“I had no experience with bones before, so by working here I’ve gotten extensive experience that most undergraduates don’t get,” Zywicki said. “And now that I’m applying to graduate schools I have that experience on my resume and that’s something that should really catch their attention.”

Kailey Shelton, a junior from Maryland, is enjoying the project so much she decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in anthropology to go along with her history major. “It’s so neat to see the physical remains of something that’s a thousand years old,” Shelton said. “It’s the idea that something from so long ago is right here in front of me, and I’m able to tell something about that person from it. As clichéd as it is, it’s where history comes alive, and that’s always been the thing that excites me the most.”

Source: Michigan State University

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