Moderators: Dr. Marvin Allison and Dr. Enrique Gerszten
Section 1 -
Paleopathology of Bronze-age Burials in a Balearic Island
Pedro L. Fernández
Dept. of Pathology, Hospital Clinic-IDIBAPS
University of Barcelona
The island of Menorca is the northernmost of the Balearic islands , located some 130 miles East of the
Mediterranean Spanish coast. This land is nowadays a fashionable vacational resort for those looking for
sun and, contrarily to Mallorca, the largest island, some solitary beaches. But this land, fully
integrated in the most technologically developed world, once harboured a mysterious population some 3.000
years ago called the talaiotic culture, which takes its name from the "talaiots", a sort of stone
table-shaped funerary and defensive constructions.
In the Spring of 2005, three speleologists climbed to the 15 meter-high entrance of a cave located on
some inland cliffs in the island of Menorca. The first glance to the interior from the entrance showed
what they immediately recognized as osseous remnants, prompting them to return to the city and inform the
public authorities, who diligently closed the place for further investigation. These precautions
preserved the finding intact for Science until the excavation started in September 2005. Beside human
remnants, different artefacts were recorded, including stretchers, floral blankets and bull-hide
containers with hairs inside. All individual were bundled in a foetal position with ropes and bovid
hides and on lateral decubitus. Tin bracelets, rings and ear-ring speak of a high status for some of
these individuals due to the scarcity of such metal.
Seventy individual were finally identified at different levels, and they included 28 infants (one
possible premature), 6 juveniles, and 36 adults of both sexes. The abundant osseous remnants are still
under analysis and they have so far provided evidences of periostitis in one fibula and tibia,
degenerative changes in vertebrae and two cases of probable neoplasm involving a femur and a coxal.
Although the anthropological and paleopathological analysis is far from being completed at this point,
it is now evident that some individual preserved some soft tissue elements. Among these, muscle attached
to the long bones, intrathoracic and abdominal content and, most interesting, intracraneal tissue were
readily discovered. The later, found in six individuals, was carefully rehydrated with Sandison's
solution , paraffin-embedded, sectioned and stained with hematoxilin-eosine as well as other
histopathological techniques. Light microscopy showed a reticular tissue with some round spaces and
concentrical structures reminiscent of white matter and vessels. Immunohistochemical staining for NSE,
neurofilaments, S100 protein, GFAP and actin were all negative. Luxol-fast blue for myelin was strongly
positive which, together with definitive confirmation of the presence of myelin by electron microscopy
and the reticular structure showed by scanning microscopy confirmed the initial suspicion of brain
The finding of nervous tissue is anecdotic in ancient remains given the high content of liquid,
scarcity of stroma and the fast enzimatic degradation that usually takes place. The finding of several
such specimens in this burial suggests very unique environmental conditions, so far undetermined, leading
to enhanced preservation of soft tissues, specially intracraneal content, which makes this archaeological
The rest of soft tissue samples is still under study, but it is obvious that the intraabdominal
material found in one individual consists of faeces with high vegetal content.
There is still a great amount of work to do on this research, but from archaeological,
anthropological and paleopathological points of view the initial findings point towards a unique
discovery of great importance for the understanding of the primitive civilizations in the Mediterranean
area, of which only initial glimpses are available .
This study is being conducted in collaboration with the department of Prehistory of
the University of Barcelona (UB) (Dr. Fullola, Dra. Petit), department of Prehistory of the University
of the Balearic Islands (UIB)
(Dr. Víctor Guerrero, Dr. Manuel Calvo), the department of Anthropology of the Autonomous University
of Barcelona (Dra. Malgosa, Dra. Nuria Armentano, and Dr. Galtés), and Dr. Esteban, Dr. Bombí, Dr.
Campo and Montserrat Tortosa from the department of Pathology of the Hospital Clinic, IDIBAPS and
University of Barcelona .
- Sandison AT. The study of mummified and dried human tissues. En Brothwell D , Higgs E eds. "Sciencie in Archeology". Thames and Hudson. London. 1963.
- Wellman H. The identification and treatment of a unique cache of organic artefacts from Menorca´s bronze age. J Conservation & Museum Studies http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/conservation/jcms/issue1/wellman.html