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Friday, March 05, 2021

Grave truths

Scientists run into India’s first cancer patient and rare genetic anomalies after studying the first human skeletons of the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) era

Written by Sunanda Mehta | Pune |
May 5, 2007 4:44:01 pm

In November last year, archaeologists discovered two human graves at Abhaipur, a village near Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, belonging to the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) era—the possible setting of Ved Vyas’s Mahabharata. As it turns out, they also ran into the remains of India’s first cancer patient.

Analysis of the first skeletal remains—an adult and a child—of the age has yielded rare insights into this important pre-historic age. “The adult skeleton, dating to 1100 B.C., is one of the best preserved in the Indian protohistoric context. It’s of a healthy male, about 50-60 years old at the time of his death, and around 180 cm tall. What’s important is the rare morphological traits we found,” says paleo-anthroploogist Dr S.R. Walimbe of Pune’s Deccan College.

Walimbe was handed over the skeletal material for examination by the team who led the excavations—Dr Anup Misra and Professor U.P. Arora of M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. The anthropology laboratory of the college’s post-graduate and research institute is the only one in the country that carries out research on human skeletal remains recovered during excavations.

Walimbe, who was assisted by Dr Veena Mushrif, also found an instance of Neoplastic bone formation in the femur—one of the earliest instances of cancer detected in Indian history. “The lesion in the Abhaipur specimen can be diagnosed as benign neoplasm, where the growth remains solely at the site of origin and tends to spread locally without a generalised bodily effect,” said Walimbe. “What’s important is that these are the only known skeletal remains of humans dating to that era.”

The PGW culture existed in the upper Ganga valley region, spanning Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir, and the striking characteristic of this culture is its pottery, which also gives it its name. The first remains were found at Ahicchatra in Bareilly in 1944.

The examination of the adult skeleton has revealed many genetic anomalies reported for the first time. These include large “wormian bones” (irregular plate of bone found in sutures between large cranial bones), incompletely fused neural arches of a few vertebrae, age-related degenerative arthritis, joint problems and dental caries.

Walimbe and Mushrif also found an open suture in the forehead of the skeleton. “Not many specimens of open metopic suture are known in India. The frontal bone of the skull at the forehead is divided at birth into two halves by a verticle line or opening called the metopic suture. This suture usually closes between the first and second years of life, but rarely persists throughout life as a discrete suture separating the frontal bone, which is what seems to have happened in the case of this adult. Though not wholly unknown it’s a rare anamoly,” explains Walimbe.

Another striking anomaly was the absence of a vertebra in the skeleton. “The care with which the skeletons were removed from their graves leaves no doubt that this anomaly existed before the excavation. The presence of four lumber vertebrae (instead of five) is very unusual and rare. A few diseases can lead to such a condition but they are accompanied by severe deformities that this individual does not possess,” says Walimbe.

The relics are also expected to unfold information on the customs, diseases, gene pool and food habits of the era. The discovery of the graves has already busted the myth that the people of this age cremated their dead. In most big cities of the time, burial sites or cemeteries were found outside the cities. In Abhaipur, the graves were inside the village. “Perhaps only bigger cities had separate cemeteries. Or was this person so important to his society that he was given special treatment? These are some of the questions that need to be studied,” Walimbe says.

The other skeleton, presumably of a two-year-old, was discovered in a very poor condition. The femur showed evidence of ‘Harris lines’ that indicate childhood illness. The findings by Walimbe and Mushrif will soon be given over for publication in journals.

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