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Wrong Place at the right time

Siberian Bronze Age skull reveals secrets of ancient society

SASKATOON – Unlike most hunter-gatherer societies of the Bronze Age, the people of the Baikal region of modern Siberia (Russia) respected their dead with formal graves. These burial sites are a treasure trove for archeologists and one particular specimen was so unique that bioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse traveled across the world just to bring it back to the Canadian Light Source synchrotron for examination.

“I’ve conducted research with the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project since the late nineties, and this specimen really intrigued me,” said Lieverse, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan. “I’ve known about this skull for about 10 years and there are a couple things about it that are fascinating.”

The first, she said, is that this individual is missing the two front teeth on the lower jaw. And the second is that there is an obvious stone projectile tip embedded in the exact same spot of the mandible where the two incisors should be.

“We knew there was a projectile, we could see it, but we didn’t know if it occurred years before the individual died or if it happened around the same time as his death,” she added. “I suspected it happened earlier and had something to do with the very unusual missing teeth.”

The specimen was found in a marked cemetery northwest of Lake Baikal. The skeleton was buried ceremoniously with a nephrite disk and four arrowheads, one of which was broken and found in the eye socket.

After radiocarbon dating and analysis, it was determined the individual was a 35-40 year-old male from the early Bronze Age, about 4420-3995 BP (Before Present).

With permission from a Russian colleague, Lieverse traveled to Siberia and returned to the Saskatoon synchrotron to examine a specimen that contained secrets and surprises.

The Biomedical and Imaging Therapy (BMIT) beamline at the CLS is a unique facility where specimens such as this can be examined using powerful X-ray light.

Working alongside Dr. David Cooper, Canada Research Chair in Synchrotron Bone Imaging, Isaac Pratt, anatomy and cell biology PhD student, and Dr. George Belev, BMIT Staff Scientist, researchers were able to reconstruct the arrowhead fragment from the jaw using advanced imaging techniques.

“We discovered that the missing teeth had nothing to do with the projectile,” said Lieverse. “Turns out that this individual had a rare case of agenesis – where the two central incisors never formed – a genetic trait that affects less than half of a per cent of all people.”

This is one of the only examples in the archaeological literature of the occurrence of this kind of genetic dental anomaly.  

The projectile tip, it turned out, was in fact a broken piece of the arrowhead that was placed in the eye socket. Lieverse suspects that the arrowhead was removed from the man’s face, either during the struggle or before the burial.

“We know that the people of the Baikal region had a very little history of violence.  This is one of only three specimens dating to this period that have any evidence of violence at all.

“A projectile point fired into somebody’s face is probably not an accident. You can say with some certainty there is an intention of violence there.”

Acknowledgments: This research is part of the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project (BHAP) based at the University of Alberta and funded largely by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Thank you to Dr. George Belev and the CLS BMIT staff for their assistance with the SRµCT, and to Chantal Kawalilak for assistance with the HR-pQCT imaging, Dr. David Cooper and the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Isaac Pratt, Fellow in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Training grant in Health Research Using Synchrotron Techniques (CIHR-THRUST).

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Dr. Angela Lieverse

University of Saskatchewan bioarchaeologist Dr. Angela Lieverse conducts research on a rare skull from Bronze Age Siberia using the Biomedical Imaging and Therapy (BMIT) beamline at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron.

Photo and story by Mark Ferguson, Canadian Light Source Inc. This photo and others to accompany the story are available with a Creative Commons license in the CLS Flickr Gallery

PhD student, Isaac Pratt

University of Saskatchewan anatomy and cell biology PhD student, Isaac Pratt, is one of the authors of an exciting publication on a skull found in the Baikal region of Siberia. Pratt conducts imaging on the BMIT beamline at the CLS.

Cite: Lieverse, A. R., et al. "Point taken: An unusual case of incisor agenesis and mandibular trauma in Early Bronze Age Siberia." International Journal of Paleopathology 6 (2014): 53-59. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2014.04.004

 

About the CLS:

The Canadian Light Source is Canada’s national centre for synchrotron research and a global centre of excellence in synchrotron science and its applications. Located on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon, the CLS has hosted 1,700 researchers from academic institutions, government, and industry from 10 provinces and 2 territories; delivered over 32,000 experimental shifts; received over 8,300 user visits; and provided a scientific service critical in over 1,000 scientific publications, since beginning operations in 2005.

CLS operations are funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Western Economic Diversification Canada, National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan.

Synchrotrons work by accelerating electrons in a tube to nearly the speed of light using powerful magnets and radio frequency waves. By manipulating the electrons, scientists can select different forms of very bright light using a spectrum of X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet light to conduct experiments.

Synchrotrons are used to probe the structure of matter and analyze a host of physical, chemical, geological and biological processes. Information obtained by scientists can be used to help design new drugs, examine the structure of surfaces in order to develop more effective motor oils, build more powerful computer chips, develop new materials for safer medical implants, and help clean up mining wastes, to name a few applications.

For more information visit the CLS website
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