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Using science and art, a UC anthropologist has revealed an ancient thyroid disease using science and art.
No one can deny it, art imitates everyday life. This isn’t something new and has existed for time immemorial, probably since the first cave drawings were made, tens of thousands of years ago.
And as mankind developed, so did art.
Not long ago, University of Cincinnati anthropologist and geologist Kenneth Tankersley investigated a 2000-year-old carved statue on a tobacco pipe, and what he found will rewrite art history.
In 1901, at the Adena Burial Mound in Ross County, Ohio, archeologists discovered a strange, 8-inch pipe statue — thought to have been carved into the likeness of an Ohio Valley Native American, as well as the remains an achondroplastic human.
People with achondroplasia usually tend to have short arms and legs, an enlarged head, as well as an average-sized trunk.
What it seemed is not what it is
But what was thought to have been evidence of achondroplasia turned out to be something entirely different upon closer inspection.
“During the early turn of the century, this theory was consistent with actual human remains of a Native American excavated in Kentucky, also interpreted by archaeologists as being an achondroplasia dwarf,” says Tankersley.
“Here we have a carved statute and human remains, both of achondroplasia from the same time period.”
“But what caught my eye on this pipe statue was an obvious tumor on the neck that looked remarkably like a goiter or thyroid tumor.”
To figure out what the miniature statue was trying to tell, Tankersley teamed up with a colleague from the University of Bordeaux in Paris, Frederic Bauduer, a biological anthropologist and paleopathologist.
They re-analyzed the tobacco pipe and found that it dates back to around 4,000 years.
The scientific duo discovered that the region where the statue was discovered was prone to Goiter before iodized salt was introduced in the 1920’s. Furthermore, it is believed how tobacco smoking increases the risk in low iodine intake zones.
These factors led experts to believe they were looking at an iodine deficiency, which resulted in a thyroid disease.
“We found the tumor in the neck, as well as the figure’s squatted stance – not foreshortened legs as was formerly documented in the literature – were both signs and symptoms of thyroid disease,” Tankersley explained.
“We already know that iodine deficiencies can lead to thyroid tumors, and the Ohio Valley area, where this artifact was found, has historically had iodine depleted soils and water relative to the advance of an Ice Age glacier about 300,000 years ago.”
Further analysis led experts to conclude that the lower limbs thought to have been portrayed on the small statue were in fact not much shorter than usual.
The tilted squat position is known to be common among people who suffer from hypothyroidism. But researchers also suggest that this figure’s stance may be mimicking a ceremonial dance.
“The fact that the bones of the figure are all normal size leads us to believe the squat portrays more of an abnormal gait while likely in the stance of a typical Native American ritual dance,” explained Tankersley.
Experts have concluded that the 2,000-year-old pipe is the first known example of a goiter in ancient Native American art on the continent, but also the oldest example in the Western Hemisphere.
“Art history is beginning to help substantiate many scientific hypotheses,” concluded Tankersley.