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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Charlotte Roberts

Santos, A.L. & Roberts, C.A. (2006). Anatomy of a serial killer: differential diagnosis of tuberculosis based on rib lesions of adult individuals from the Coimbra Identified Skeletal Collection,Portugal. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 130(1): 38-49.

Author(s) from Durham


The role of new bone formation on visceral surfaces of ribs in the diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB) in past human populations has been explored by many researchers, using both skeletal remains with known causes of death and archaeological samples. This study focuses, firstly, on adult skeletons from the Coimbra Identified Skeletal Collection in Portugal and investigates the skeletal manifestations of individuals known to have died from TB; secondly, this study focuses on the role of rib lesions in the diagnostic criteria for TB. One hundred and fifty-seven males and 106 females aged between 22-87 years were examined; causes of death were assigned as pulmonary TB, extrapulmonary TB, and pulmonary non-TB; a control group, extrapulmonary non-TB, was selected from the remaining individuals. Of individuals with rib lesions, 85.7% (69/81) had pulmonary or extrapulmonary TB as an assigned cause of death, while 17.8% (16/90) of individuals with rib lesions had a non-TB cause of death. Rib lesions were significantly more common in individuals who had died from TB, although the lesions cannot be considered pathognomonic for TB. In individuals dying from pulmonary TB, ribs in the central part of the rib cage were most affected, at their vertebral ends. The lower part of the rib cage may be a marker for peritoneal TB, and coral-like new bone formation on ribs may be an indicator of neoplastic disease. Further work on rib involvement in TB in clinical contexts, and the study of further documented skeletal collections, are recommended.