ARCHAEOLOGY: Boxgrove Man Reveals His Stone Age-Old Secrets

Article excerpt

Archaeologists plan to reconstruct the diet, lifestyle, medical history and even age at death of the Stone Age man whose half- million-year-old leg bone was recently found in a gravel pit at Boxgrove in Sussex.

Detailed forensic examination of the bone - the discovery of which was announced last month - is likely to reveal huge amounts of information about Western Europe's first human inhabitants.

What is more, in-depth study of prehistoric tools and animal bones found near by should help complete the picture. The bone itself is likely to reveal seven specific pieces of information.

- Chemical analysis of a tiny fragment of the bone will give a clue as to Boxgrove Man's diet by revealing the relative frequency of various carbon and other isotopes. Different types of food leave different isotopic traces in bone - and scientists should be able to determine the rough balance of meat, fish and plant food eaten by the bone's original "owner".

- Further analysis of the bone should reveal how old Boxgrove Man was when he died. The basic structural units of bone, multi- branched cylindrical objects called osteones, regenerate themselves throughout a person's life, leaving traces of previous osteones in place - a sort of lifelong super-clock.

- Luckily the Boxgrove bone is broken - so scientists will be able to study its cross-section with relative ease. The unusually thick bone wall (the bone material between the bone's central "void" and its outer face) suggests that Boxgrove Man had a physique somewhere between a light-heavyweight boxing champion and a rugby half-back. Much of the bone thickness would have been built up over the years in direct response to extremely regular bio- mechanical stress. This would have taken three forms - compression (sheer physical pressure on the bone), tension (usually due to extremely rapid changes of movement) and fatigue (due to very frequent intense activity).

Detailed measurements, calculations and comparative studies (plus X-ray and CT scans of the bone's osteone orientation) may yield clues as to just what Boxgrove Man was doing with his undoubted physical strength. The compression and tension needed to build up bone thickness to Boxgrove Man levels suggests the possibility that he was having to catch and wrestle with animal prey on a regular basis in order to get enough food to survive.

- Studying CT (computerised tomography) scans of the bone may also reveal details of Boxgrove Man's life history. As bone grows over the years, illness or lack of food sometimes leave tell-tale marks in the bone's structure.

- The bone may also yield vital details as to Boxgrove Man's precise relationship to ourselves. Scientists have so far failed to isolate DNA material from a human being of this antiquity, but attempts may be made with Boxgrove Man. Shortly after the bone was discovered - but before it was fully removed from the ground - several tiny fragments were removed and kept free from modern human and other contamination. This untouched material could eventually be used in an attempt to obtain half-million-year-old human DNA. If the scientists pull it off, they will be able to fit Boxgrove Man into the human family tree. He is unlikely to be our direct ancestor - more a cousin descended from a common African antecedent, perhaps 100,000 years or more earlier. He may, however, be a distant ancestor of Neanderthal Man.

- The size of the Boxgrove bone shows that its original "owner" was around 6ft tall (probably somewhere between 5ft 10in and 6ft 3in) - and this in turn suggests that his ancestors had arrived not that long before from a tropical grassland environment. Tallness in humans originated as an evolutionary adaption to enable our highly heat-sensitive brain to be kept well above the layer of very hot air found immediately above the ground in such environments. Nowhere else in Europe are there any known human remains or artefacts generally accepted as pre- dating Boxgrove Man. …