The bare bones of our distant past | Bernardette Mercieca-Spiteri

Recent studies on the Xaghra Circle Neolithic burial site in Gozo appear to indicate that Malta’s temple-building culture was possibly more sophisticated than previously assumed. BERNARDETTE MERCIECA-SPITERI, executive of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, outlines what can be learnt from the study of ancient human remains

Bernardette Mercieca-Spiteri
Bernardette Mercieca-Spiteri

Being primarily a burial site, the Xaghra Stone Circle’s archeological treasures consist, for the most part, in bones. As a specialist in osteo-archaeology… what can a human skeleton tell us about the way people actually lived around 5,000 years ago or more?

Bones can tell us a lot about a population. First of all, when you look at bones, you are actually looking at what is left of the people themselves. It’s direct evidence of who they were, and how they lived. What closer connection can you get to their culture? But in terms of precise information: first of all, a skeleton will potentially tell you whether the person was male or female. There are some pointers, such as the cranium, and especially the pelvic region… the pelvis of a woman is different from that of a man, obviously to accommodate childbirth. Also, the skull tends to be different by a number of markers. A male skull tends to be more robust, and in some features larger. In fact we have a checklist of such markers, when examining skeletal remains...

Out of curiosity, how do their physical dimensions compare to ours today?

Some bones suggest that they were, on average, taller than us. Not excessively taller, but that’s the impression we get from skeletal remains. But there are other studies going on at the moment, looking specifically into robusticity of the lower, and upper limbs, to gauge the levels of daily activity. Because that’s another thing: the human skeleton will also yield information about the person’s daily actions. If people are engaged in constant physical activity – especially involving direct, repetitive action – it will leave a mark on their bones…

This brings us to a specific interest of mine: how did these people live? So far we have talked only about what their bones might tell us about a single individual. What do they tell us about communal life in Malta, between 4,500 and 5,800 years ago?

One thing that clearly emerges from the evidence is that they were a thriving population. Even without looking at the bone record: the fact that they survived here for so long, without any metal implements and other technological resources, except for stone tools, and other local resources such as wood and some imported materials, such as flint from Sicily, is incredible in itself. That’s one thing to keep in mind. So definitely, life was a lot harder than what we are used to today. But their bones – and especially, the pathologies they reveal – also tell us another story. If you want to examine any stress in diet, or in daily life, you’re going to want to look at diseases. Certain diseases will be associated with factors such as malnutrition, or limited food sources, etc. In general, looking at the record as a whole, we are not seeing certain markers that are visible in other populations at the time. But when you start splitting up the data – comparing, for instance, the early phase of the Neolithic to the middle and late phases – some trends start to emerge. Towards the end, in fact, certain stress markers do occur. Not at an alarming rate; but something seems to have started happening in the middle of the Neolithic period, resulting possibly in more limited food resources. The recent study of the human remains from the Xaghra Circle – conducted under FRAGSUS, a 2.5 million euro project funded by the European Research Council – also focused on the quality of the soil. Specialised researchers are currently studying soil samples, which are tested for pollen levels, grain residue, aridity and so on… and, researchers are starting to build a picture that in the later periods perhaps the soil quality had started depleting. Whether this was due to dry or wet spells, or possibly floods, is hard to say. But in a few months the conclusive results of these studies will be published. Nonetheless, on the whole, the skeletal evidence suggests that these people were actually very healthy, on average. They were certainly very tough… very resilient.

How can tell all that, just from looking at a cranium, or a femur?

Again, it is the pathologies, in particular, that you have to look to. For example, one thing that really stands out is the prevalence of osteo-arthritis… but not in the knees, in the hip-bones, or the shoulders – the weightbearing parts of the skeleton, where you’d expect to find signs of osteo-arthritis today. No, they suffered from it mainly in their hands, their feet, and their spine. This is a recurring pattern; there was lots of it. And it was really, really severe. In any joint of the human skeleton, there will be a layer of cushioning around the bones, to prevent them from rubbing against each other when you move. In these people, however, that cushioning was in most cases completely gone. There was bone-to-bone contact, which literally polishes the bone. It’s almost like they’ve been varnished. The pain must have been excruciating; yet whatever it is they were doing… they kept doing it. This indicates not only that they were tough people – I don’t want to say ‘superhuman’, because it would be an exaggeration; but their pain threshold must have been considerably higher than ours. But it also suggests that they were motivated… something drove them to keep on…

Any idea what it was that they were doing, to cause osteoarthritis on that scale?

It must have been something constant, repetitive – regularly, all the time – with their hands and feet, which also involved their spine: the ‘motor’, as it were, of the human skeleton. But I can’t be more specific than that. We are still gathering data, and one of the things we’d like to understand is precisely what this daily, repetitive action might have been…

I know that wild speculation is not part of the scientific method: but do you have any pet theories of their own?

It’s not so out of place to examine a possible hypothesis. For instance: if you go to Marsaxlokk today, you will see people mending or weaving nets with both their toes and their fingers. Possibly, it might also affect the spine. So we considered that it might have been evidence of a fishing culture. But then we tested their teeth, and ran isotype analyses to gauge their diet: because if they were fishermen, then we should expect to see high intake of fish. [Pause] They weren’t eating too much fish. In fact, fish consumption was not at all popular in Neolithic Malta. In a way, it’s strange, as Malta is surrounded by sea…

…and marine life must have been abundant…

Entirely. But it could also reflect that these people were very insular. Even the megalithic temples themselves… first of all, they are completely unique in the Mediterranean. There is nothing comparable, in any other place outside Malta. And there is a theory that holds that ancient island cultures may become increasingly inwardlooking, and almost obsess about a particular trait in their culture – in Malta, this obsession would have been the building of the massive monuments, we call the megalithic temples. Separately, there is evidence of a decline in trade towards the later Neolithic. People do seem to have been closing themselves within their island, and creating further isolation… they would have looked for food inland, which is also reflected in the fact that they didn’t go out fishing too often. The evidence suggests this, but we don’t know exactly why…

Might I suggest a possibility? In the Middle Ages, most of the towns and villages – especially in Gozo – tended to be inland, away from the sea, and wellfortified. The reason was, naturally, piracy. I somehow doubt piracy would have been the issue in 3,600BC… but could there have been a similar threat from overseas? Does the bone record reveal any indication of violence, for instance… possibly warfare?

The bones don’t tell us anything about violence at all. There were injuries, certainly... but they tend to be of the kind that are likelier caused by accidents. They certainly led very physically-active lives: just think about the difficulty in transporting and erecting those huge megaliths, when building temples…

And I imagine they didn’t have the equivalent of an Occupational Health and Safety Authority, either….

Not likely, no! In fact, we do have many examples of injuries… mostly bone fractures… that could be easily attributed to accidents that would today be described as ‘occupational’. In some cases, the injuries would have been horrific, too: for instance, a femur literally snapped in half...

Do you exclude that as possible evidence of violence, though?

Yes, completely. Most of these accidents are more compatible with things like falls, and so on. But, more interestingly, we also have cases of injuries which were evidently treated; injuries which healed, even though – by their nature – they couldn’t have healed alone, and would probably have been fatal otherwise. Where, for instance, there was a massive break, or multiple breaks, in a femur… they seem to have been cared for. And we even have evidence of interventions within the mouth…

So they did at least have a healthcare system of sorts…

Yes, it seems they did. To some degree at least, they took care of their sick and injured. There may even have been people dedicated specifically to the role of tending the sick; and also, it seems, to looking after the elderly. For instance, there has always been the presumption that people didn’t live long in prehistory; that they rarely exceeded the age of 30 or 40. Today, I can tell you that we have evidence of people living beyond the age of menopause, and sometimes to a ripe old age. Naturally, it wouldn’t be as old as what would today be considered ‘old age’…

To be fair, that’s also true of just a few decades ago…

Precisely. But we do have evidence that these people were living longish lives. And this reinforces the idea that they must have taken care of their sick; and that there must have been some of kind of system in place to take care of the elderly or infirm.

All this points towards a certain level of cultural sophistication. Presumably, a culture which takes care of its sick would also have had a (naturally unwritten) code of conduct… which in turn implies some form of power structure (family-based, presumably?) to enforce conviviality. Is it possible to estimate how their society was ordered? Does, for instance, the obsession with the ’female form’ in Neolithic art possibly reflect a matriarchal culture?

What I can tell you from the bones – and even more so, from the burial sites – is that both men and women were buried in the same way at the Xaghra Circle, and even in other tombs of the same period. That is to say, curled up in foetal position, on one’s side. So we can safely say that men and women were treated equally… in death. But in life? It’s very difficult to say, unfortunately. For one thing, most of the bones retrieved from the Xaghra Circle did not come from complete skeletons. We do have a few complete skeletons… enough to give an indication of the burial rites and customs. But most are disarticulated bones. Just like we do today, they would have buried their dead according to their customs… then later, they would disinter the decomposed remains and transfer them somewhere else, to make space. That, at least, is one reason for the disarticulation. There may have been others. When the Circle was excavated, it was observed that some bones had been ‘organised’: for instance, long bones placed to one side, skulls to another. Exactly why they did this can only be guessed; but it could have been for ritualistic purposes. Whatever the case, it confirms that this culture had a close rapport with their dead. Both the Xaghra Circle and the Hypogeum were used for community gatherings, which strongly suggest that rites and rituals would have taken place there. Exactly what these rituals were, or how they unfolded, is something we don’t have precise answers for as yet.

Given that there are so many unanswered – possibly unanswerable – questions, it is inevitable that some people would attempt to fill in the gaps. There is, in fact, a whole network of conspiracy theories connected to Malta’s prehistoric culture. Some have identified Malta as the lost city of Atlantis; others argue that the Hypogeum’s elongated skulls are evidence of ’alien origins’. As a scientist, how do you react to such theories?

I have to admit it is a bit hurtful, in a way. The people we are talking about were humans like us. There were differences, of course. I mentioned how much tougher they must have been, for instance. But these are superficial matters. In evolutionary terms, they were Homo Sapiens, like us. They had the same brain capacity: they were capable of thinking, and planning ahead. It’s no mystery that human beings, who lived so many millennia ago, would have designed and built complex stone structures, with the technology that was available to them. Yet to hear them talked about as ‘aliens’… I suppose, to be fair, that is partly our fault, for not relaying enough information out there and the soon to be published studies of FRAGSUS and others will only encourage more education locally and internationally on the prehistoric period…

Surely, however, some of the claims must be difficult to dispute, given the lack of certainty. The elongated skulls, for instance… what is the accepted archaeological explanation for this phenomenon?

[Shrugs] They are pretty normal crania. They are actually really, really normal. But it’s very easy to take a photo from a certain angle, and make them look ‘elongated’… and the media – or should I say technology in general, because there’s also the social media – doesn’t always help. Recently I ran a Google search on some of these images, claiming to be ‘skulls from Hal Saflieni’. And most of the images that came up on my screen were not the same skulls from Hal Saflieni. Yet there they were, captioned as ‘from Hal Saflieni, Malta’…

So it’s not even true that it was the result of neonatal skullbinding?

No. I assure you, they are really quite ordinary, human skulls. I’ve seen bound skulls, on display in museums at Oxford. They come mostly from Africa, where the tradition still exists to this day. They don’t look anything like the Hal Saflieni skulls. Bear in mind that the human cranium differs from individual to individual anyway, and even geographically. It is sometimes even possible to tell where a skull originated from, on the basis of certain markers. A skull from Africa will differ slightly from a skull from Asia or Europe, for instance. The Hal Saflieni skulls are a bit diverse; and we see the same also in Xaghra. And while it may be possible that people from this period did ‘modify’ parts of their bodies to beautify themselves – just like they wore jewellery – there is no evidence of skull-binding… and there is certainly no evidence that those people were anything but human.

 

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