I don’t know how or when she broke her leg; all I know is she miraculously survived this devastating injury. It wasn’t a simple fracture of the tibia or fibula. Somehow she sustained a midshaft femur fracture, which is not only life-threatening, but incredibly painful. It was a serious break. The broken ends of bone were knocked out of alignment, ending up side by side; the kind of fracture that can only be corrected surgically.
But her injury was not from a car, nor from a crash, for this woman lived over seven thousand years ago along the east coast of Florida. Her skeleton was found among the ancient assemblage known as Windover, a site that has yielded a wealth of information about prehistoric Floridians.Her bones speak of a hard life. The leg injury was but one of the maladies that plagued her and despite the fracture, she managed to survive for years afterward. The ragged bone ends eventually mended, a heavy knot of callus sealing them to each other, resulting in a shortened limb and a lifetime of limping that would have made her difficult life that much more challenging.
We can tell a lot about her through her well-preserved skeleton, buried, along with 167 others, in the base of a small pond near present-day Titusville. This mortuary pond held the bundled remains of a people who roamed the Florida peninsula thousands of years ago. Their bodies remained tucked beneath the surface until their accidental discovery in 1982.bioarchaeology and spending my years at FSU studying the skeletons from Windover. And what stories these skeletons have told…
Imagine this: It’s mid-August in Florida and the temperature is hovering around ninety-five degrees. The humidity has settled like a dense fog as the sun sets on this sweltering day. The mosquitos are rising in droves from the swamp as they seek out any bit of exposed flesh, and a late thunderstorm has left behind a stifling stillness. Oh, and I almost forgot… you’re lying on a mat, writhing in pain from a fractured femur.Broken bones weren’t the only health challenges these ancient Floridians faced. You should see their teeth.
Envision your mouth if you’d never brushed or flossed (even worse, imagine your breath). But cavities and plaque were the least of their troubles. Attrition, or wearing down of the teeth, was rampant, as was tooth loss. If you were lucky enough to survive into your forties, the teeth you managed to hold onto were typically worn to the gum line from years of eating gritty, acidic foods and using your jaws as tools. Many people also suffered from infections. Abscesses burrowed into the bones of their jaws, inflaming them with pus and causing full-blown sepsis if the infection entered the bloodstream.And speaking of infection… their mouths weren’t the only body parts affected. You may not realize it, but infection wreaks havoc on bone. It causes the outer layer of bone, or periosteum, to become inflamed and can even wheedle its way into the marrow cavity, where it can spread unchecked throughout the body.
And think how demanding their lives were. Hungry? Go hunt down your dinner or gather it from the forest. Thirsty? Trek to the nearest water source and hope it’s not infected with parasites. Need shelter? Better get to work on that thatch hut, which means gathering enough palm fronds to hold off a raging thunderstorm. Need to pee or poo? Get far enough from camp to avoid contaminating the soil you’ll be sleeping upon.In other words, each of life’s necessities required work. The result? Plenty of wear and tear on the joints. And as the arthritis advanced, each and every chore became that much harder, requiring that much more effort.
We have it made. Modern life is infused with ways to make life easier. Cars, grocery stores, washing machines, and refrigerators enable us to drive, shop, clean, and store food. Not to mention life’s little luxuries, like clothes, bug spray, and toilet paper.So the next time you gripe about the cable being out or the Internet being too slow, take a breath and think about those of our distant past. What they would have given for one day in our shoes.
If you'd like to read more about the fascinating Windover site, click here: