Analysis of skeletal remains from Dar-es-Soltane II cave in Morocco has identified possibly the oldest known example of an anatomically modern human with a chronic ear infection or acquired deafness.
When the cave was excavated in the 1970s, archaeologists found the remains of three human individuals in a layer dating to c.100,000 years ago. Now, one of them, Dar-es-Soltane II H5 – a skull belonging to a man believed to be c.50 years old at the time of his death – has been the subject of recent re-examination.
Researchers from the University of Coimbra (Portugal), the École pratique des hautes études and the Collège de France (both France), and the INSAP (Morocco) conducted micro-CT scans of the skull. They found that his left ear was partially ossified, with bone growing where it should not be, in the semi-circular canals and around the cochlea. They determined that the most likely cause of this was a pathological condition known as labyrinthitis ossificans (LO). There is one older known case of LO, but this was not caused by infection, as is believed probably to be the case in the Dar-es-Soltane example.
It is difficult to say exactly how much of an impact this condition would have had on the man’s health, especially as the right temporal bone is missing so we do not know if his other cochlea was affected as well, but the level of ossification that can be observed suggests that he would have suffered from serious hearing loss, vertigo, and dizziness. These difficulties would have had serious consequences for a hunter-gatherer, affecting his ability to hunt and acquire food. This individual appears to have died just a few months after the onset of the condition, raising questions about his cause of death and the care that he received from his community. It seems that they must have looked after him for at least a short while, but what happened after that?
The results of this research have recently been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2022.06.004).