How do we know how they died?

The bones of some ancient individuals can tell us how their owners died. Some individuals had diseases that can be seen from the structure of their bones or teeth. Some had physical injuries that produce unique types of damage. Microscopes, X-rays, chemical analysis and other laboratory techniques help reveal their stories.

A leopard's lunch

 © Australian Museum

A leopard’s lunch

A two-million-year old fossil Paranthropus skullcap (SK 54) from Swartkrans in South Africa has provided some interesting information about the death of one young individual. The skullcap has been pierced leaving two small, round holes. These holes have been perfectly matched to the canine teeth in the jaw of an ancient species of leopard.

It seems that a leopard caught the adolescent and dragged its prey up into a tree to eat, just as modern leopards do today. The left-overs from this meal fell out of the tree and dropped into a cavity in the ground below. This cavity was part of a cave system that trapped the debris from many predators’ meals, the bones from which were later preserved as fossils.

Seized by an eagle

The Taung Child (Australopithecus africanus) was only a tiny three-year-old when it was seized by an eagle 2.3 million years ago. We know an eagle or another bird of prey took this child because puncture marks and depression fractures to the skull are similar to those that occur on the prey of eagles today. Microscopic analysis supports this by showing scratches on the skull produced by clawed talons.

Gum disease

The Turkana Boy (Homo ergaster) lived in Africa about 1.5 million years ago. Although he died young, his bones show that he did not die from an attack by a predator because his nearly complete skeleton shows no damage from either predators or scavengers. Instead, his jaw shows that he had a diseased gum where a deciduous molar – one of his baby teeth – had been shed. An infection seems to have set in and he probably died of septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Another individual who lived about 400,000 years ago probably died as a result of severe tooth decay and gum disease. The skull of this ancient human (Homo heidelbergensis), known as Kabwe or Broken Hill, had many large tooth cavities and abscesses which affected the jaw bone in which the teeth were embedded. This individual was unusual because ancient humans rarely showed such significant dental decay, probably because human diets were generally low in sugar until the beginnings of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

Poisoned!

The partial skeleton of woman known only as KNM-ER 1808 (Homo ergaster) was found in 1973. She died about 1.7 million years ago from a painful condition that may have been caused by vitamin A poisoning. This cause of death is suggested by the layer of abnormal bone which covered the bones in her arms and legs. This abnormal bone is similar to that found in modern humans with vitamin A poisoning.

Excess vitamin A in the diet is toxic to our bodies and causes the tissues around the bone to tear, bleed and form huge clots. Abnormal bone tissue like that seen in KNM-ER 1808 then begins to grow. To have been poisoned by vitamin A, KNM-ER 1808’s diet must have included large quantities of foods high in this vitamin. Foods that have concentrated levels of vitamin A in them include honeybee broods (eggs, pupae and larvae) and the livers from carnivorous animals. Analysis of KNM-ER 1808’s teeth shows she had been a meat eater so it is possible that her poisoning resulted from eating too many livers taken from carnivorous animals.


Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator
Beth Blaxland , Education Project Officer
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