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Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

Archaeologists Discover 7-lb. Calcified Uterus in British Cemetery

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Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

During recent excavations at a cemetery in southeast England, archaeologists pulled something strange out of an otherwise unremarkable grave. The object looked like a hybrid of a soccer ball and a rugby ball—bulbous at one end, tapered at the other. It was smooth as bone, resting near the hips of the skeleton of an older woman, who had been buried in a shroud at least 200 years ago.

“The first thing you would think is somehow the head has rolled down into the pelvis,” said Carolyn Rando, a forensic anthropologist at University College London. But the object wasn’t a skull. It was completely solid, and, at more than seven pounds, it was strikingly heavy. After making a careful analysis, Rando and her colleagues think it’s a calcified uterus, the largest of its kind in the archaeological record. 

"I’ve never seen anything quite like that before, nor have my colleagues, and we were very excited,” Rando told mental_floss. “It’s one of the largest masses found archaeologically."

This giant calcified growth was found at St. Michael’s Litten, a graveyard in Chichester that was used from the Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, but had been hidden under a parking lot until excavations in 2011 turned up nearly 2000 bodies.

The uterus belonged to a woman who was over 50, had lost all of her teeth and had developed osteoporosis by the time she died, likely sometime between the 1600s and 1800s. (Archaeologists don’t have good dates for most of the graves at this cemetery.) The mass probably started out as a number of leiomyomas, sometimes called uterine fibroids, which are benign growths that occur in up to 40 percent of women of reproductive age. Most of the time, these masses remain soft tissue and don’t calcify. But some leiomyomas can get so large that they outstrip their blood supply and start to harden.

Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

Rando and her colleagues came up with this diagnosis after conducting CT scans of the mass and then slicing it in half to look at its interior structure. In their case report, published in the September issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology, the scientists ruled out a long list of other potential conditions, including the possibility that the growth was a lithopedion, a fetus that dies during pregnancy and hardens outside the uterus. (This phenomenon occasionally shows up in the news, most recently in June, when a 50-year-old stone baby was found inside of an elderly woman in Chile.)

It’s not exactly clear how the growth affected the life of the woman who was buried at St. Michael’s, or if it contributed to her death. 

“I’m sure she knew she had something,” Rando said. “I imagine that she might have had some problems going to the bathroom properly. I don’t think she would have been very comfortable. It would be like carrying a full-term infant all the time. But she lived a long life and this object would have taken a long time to grow, so maybe it didn’t bother her that much.”

In archaeological medical cases like this one, it’s tough to look for modern analogs, as most women today would get leiomyomas removed quite early, Rando said. But while scouring the historical medical literature, Rando and her colleagues did find one case that might shed light on how a woman could have lived with a baby-sized, calcified uterus for so long—and at what health risk. In 1840, a British doctor described a 72-year-old woman who came to him with intense abdominal pain after a fall. He noticed that she had a hard mass in her abdomen, which she said had been there for at least 30 years without causing her any trouble. Soon after the exam, the woman died. An autopsy revealed a tumor as hard as marble that resembled the uterus at five months pregnant, in both size and shape. The fall had caused this growth to perforate a section of the woman’s bowel, which killed her. 

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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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