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Research

Archaeologists shed new light on 'modern' medical problem

(16 March 2017)

Prostate stone found in Central Sudan. Credit: D. Usai et al

Archaeologists have helped solve a centuries’ old medical mystery which could change the way doctors today view the common condition of prostate stones.

An international team of researchers, including experts at Durham University, used neutron beam technology to identify three stone-like objects found during excavations of a prehistoric grave in Central Sudan.

They discovered that the mysterious objects were prostate stones – a condition previously thought to be exclusive to the modern era.

The find proves that far from being a modern condition, prostate stones also affected prehistoric men, even though their lifestyle and diet were significantly different to our own.

The researchers hope their find might now provide medical researchers with the opportunity to learn more about what causes the disease.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

“First known evidence”

Research co-author Dr Tina Jakob, in Durham’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Although bladder stones have been discovered at other archaeological sites, this is the first known evidence of severe prostate calcification affecting men as early as 10,000 BC.

“This is a truly remarkable discovery and will change the way we look at prostatic stones as a modern medical phenomenon.”

While excavating a cemetery in Central Sudan in 2013, a team of archaeologists from the UK and Italy unearthed a pre-Mesolithic burial with an unusual feature.

Three stone-like objects were found within the pelvic area of an adult male and it was initially thought they could be kidney, bladder or gall stones.

The stones were oval and irregular in shape with diameters ranging between 26mm and 30mm, weighing between 12g and 15g.

Common condition

Nowadays, prostatic stones are a common condition for modern men, affecting about 75 per cent of the middle-aged population – although most stones only grow to a few millimetres in diameter before being treated.

Extensive tests were carried out on the stones using the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS facility, the UK’s centre for studying the properties of materials on the atomic scale.

By measuring how neutrons were scattered by the stone sample, the researchers built up a picture of its mineral nature.

They were then able to identify the objects as prostate stones. Although archaeologists cannot say whether these stones killed the man, they were large enough to cause intense pain and affect his quality of life.

Neutron beam

Dr Antonella Scherillo, the lead scientist operating the neutron beam at ISIS, said: “We were delighted to be able to help the archaeologists find out the nature of these unusual objects.

“Using ISIS’ powerful neutron beam we were able to analyse the phase composition of the object without causing any damage.

“This is how we found out the stones were in fact prostate stones – a remarkable discovery considering the age of the burial site.”

Radiocarbon dating

Until now, the earliest possible discovery of calculi – a hard mass formed by minerals in the body – was from an Italian grave from around 6,500 BC.

The cemetery of Al Khiday, where the individual with the prostate stones was found, is located in Central Sudan on the left bank of the White Nile, and is home to 190 graves of various ages.

Archaeologists were able to deduce the age of these remains by the style of burial and a detailed study of the mineral deposition of the bones, as well as radiocarbon dating the rock and soil in the burial site, which suggested the male lived around 10,000 BC.

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