Migration and disease in the Iron Age

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This Iron Age man’s spine showed signs of advanced tuberculosis. CREDIT: Historic England

Scientific analysis of a human skeleton discovered at Tarrant Hinton in Dorset has shed new light on life – and the transmission of infectious disease – in Iron Age Britain.

The remains were originally found during excavations at a small Iron Age/Romano-British settlement between 1967 and 1985. Examination and radiocarbon dating of the skeleton indicated that it was that of a man, aged between 30 and 40, who had died between 400 BC and 230 BC. His spine showed signs of advanced tuberculosis, and DNA analysis confirmed this to be the case, making this the earliest-known case of tuberculosis in Britain.

As Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist for Historic England, explained, ‘We know from the DNA evidence that this person would have got his TB from another person rather than from infected meat or milk. Human-to-human transmission is favoured by crowded city living, but the fact that we find TB at this early date reminds us that the disease could still survive in the rather sparse human populations of the prehistoric past.’

Isotope analysis of the remains was conducted by Alistair Pike at the University of Southampton. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes showed that the Iron Age man had eaten a mixed diet of cereal and vegetables, as well as cattle and sheep, but little fish or pork.

Strontium and oxygen isotopes were used to assess the man’s origins and possible migration patterns during his life. The results from the man’s third molar (a tooth that develops when a person is between eight and 14 years old) indicated that by that age he was already living in the southern British chalklands in which he was buried, but isotope values from the other molars, which develop earlier in childhood, suggested that he had previously lived in an area outside Britain characterised by carboniferous limestone. While a specific region could not be pinpointed, this type of geology is found in the south and west of Ireland, in south-west France, and in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain. It is not known whether this man acquired tuberculosis on the Continent as a child, where it is known to have been endemic, or in Britain later in his life, but it is hoped that further work in this area will help to elucidate the spread of this disease.

The skeleton is now on permanent display at the Museum of East Dorset in Wimborne: www.museumofeastdorset.co.uk.

This news article appears in issue 370 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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