Glasgow & West Scotland

Oldest UK case of rickets in Neolithic Tiree skeleton

Neolithic skeleton found on Tiree Image copyright The Hunterian
Image caption The woman's skeleton was found on Tiree in 1912

The earliest known case of rickets in the UK has been identified in a 5,000-year-old skeleton found in Scotland.

The disease, caused by Vitamin D deficiency linked to lack of sunlight, can lead to weak and deformed bones.

It was identified in the remains of a Neolithic woman who had been buried on the Scottish island of Tiree.

Researchers from Durham and Bradford Universities made the discovery. Until now, the earliest case of rickets in Britain dated from the Roman period.

The skeleton was discovered along with at least three other burials during an amateur excavation on Tiree in 1912.

Bone deformities

Only one of the skeletons was taken off the island, and is now part of the Hunterian collection at Glasgow University.

The skeleton was always assumed to date from the same period as a nearby Iron Age settlement.

However, recent radiocarbon dating by scientists from Bradford and Durham Universities showed the skeleton was actually from between 3340 and 3090 BC - in the Neolithic period.

Their examination also identified rickets in the woman's badly-deformed bones.

Image copyright Fiona Shapland
Image caption The woman's bones showed signs of deformity due to rickets

The bones show a number of deformities in the breastbone, ribs, arms and legs.

These would have left the woman pigeon-chested with misshapen limbs - all characteristic of the disease.

Professor Ian Armit, from Bradford University, said: "The earliest case of rickets in Britain until now dated from the Roman period, but this discovery takes it back more than 3,000 years.

"There have been a few possible cases in other parts of the world that are around the same time, but none as clear cut as this.

Professor Armit said it was unclear how the woman would have developed rickets.

"Vitamin D deficiency shouldn't be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural, outdoor lifestyle, so there must have been particular circumstances that restricted this woman's access to sunlight as a child," he said.

"It's most likely she either wore a costume that covered her body or constantly remained indoors, but whether this was because she held a religious role, suffered from illness or was a domestic slave, we will probably never know."

The research team's findings have been published in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

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