Back ache has been a pain for millions of years

February 24, 2011, University of Cambridge
Back ache: it?s been a pain for millions of years

( -- Research by a Cambridge archaeologist shows that back pain caused untold misery long before we started staring into screens and slumping on sofas.

The high incidence of back pain apparent today is often blamed on our lazy lifestyles: we sit at computers, watch television, travel by car and eat too much. But debilitating back ache is nothing new: it dates back millions of years to an era long before screens and sofas, according to a Cambridge University researcher who is looking at the of human bones.

In a talk called "Four Million Years of Back Pain" on 25 February, Dr. Asier Gomez-Olivencia will present the latest results of his research on the damaged spine of an early hominin called Homo heidelbergensis. He will set this in the context of the diseases evident in the fossil record of the hominin spine from australopithecines to Neandertals - a time span stretching from 4.4 million to 30,000 years ago.

Gomez-Olivencia will also discuss the possibility that disabled members of early human communities may have been looked after by the rest of the group for significant periods of time, confounding popular stereotypes of these societies as brutal and uncaring.

Found among the bones of around 28 individuals at a site called Sima de los Huesos (pit of bones) in northern Spain, the almost-complete lumbar spine caused huge excitement when it was carefully reconstructed from fragments discovered during different field seasons by a team of scientists from the Centro Mixto de Evolución Humana in Burgos.

The spine comes from the same individual as a pelvis found back in 1994, two years after the site yielded three complete crania. These finds merited the front cover of the prestigious scientific journal Nature as they pushed back the Neanderthal lineage into the Middle Pleistocene (around 500,000 years ago) and helped to clarify human evolution in that period.

While the tough bone material of human teeth and long bones is more likely to survive, human vertebrae are more fragile and prone to break and finally disappear, making them tantalisingly rare in the fossil record. The lumbar spine found in Sima de los Huesos, known as SH1, is more or less intact.

Examination of the morphology of the pubis symphysis shows that the bones come from a man of around 45 years (distinctly elderly for the time) who lived more than half a million years ago. The way in which the bones developed (their morphology) and the way they changed due to wear and tear (their pathology) show that this individual is likely to have suffered severe back pain.

Back problems - which today account for almost half of absences from work and exert a heavy toll on the economy - are often considered to be a side effect of an "unnatural" life style. But the SH1 spine adds to other fossil evidence that vertebral pathologies have been present in our history for millions of years. Living very differently to us, our ancestors suffered from back problems comparable to the conditions that cause us so much misery.

Dr. Gomez-Olivencia is matching the morphology and pathology of the SH1spine to modern spines showing similar lesions. "It appears that we are looking at the spine of a man who had several different problems, including the inversion of the curvature of the back, spondylolisthesis, and Baastrup disease - which are associated with pain today," he said.

Homo heidelbergensis were nomadic hunter gatherers, relying on animals such as red deer and horses for food, and a damaged spine would have made hunting impossible. The survival of a man with limited mobility suggests that some individuals may have been looked after by others, or have found alternative roles in the community.

"It's likely that communities differed in their responses to disabilities so we can't say for certain that the SH1 individual was cared for by the group or that this was typical - but it's interesting to note that this is not the only individual that suffered pathologies in this site," said Dr Gomez-Olivencia.

Not only are Homo heidelbergensis likely, like us, to have suffered . The results of a study published by Spanish scientists suggest that our female ancestors experienced another health hazard often regarded as relatively modern - difficult and painful births.

When the human pelvis adapted to an upright position, its modified confuguration "competed" with the need to give birth to infants with large heads. A comparison of the shape of the SH1 pelvis with human fossil pelvises known to be female from around the world reveals that the difference between sexes of the fossil specimens parallels those of modern males and females. This discovery suggests that our female ancestors had tricky and life-threatening deliveries.

Explore further: Good long-term results for fusion surgery for high-grade spondylolisthesis

Related Stories

New ancestor? Scientists ponder DNA from Siberia

March 24, 2010

( -- An international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has sequenced ancient mitochondrial DNA from a finger bone found in southern Siberia. The bone is ...

French find puts humans in Europe 200,000 years earlier

December 15, 2009

Experts on prehistoric man are rethinking their dates after a find in a southern French valley suggested our ancestors may have reached Europe 1.57 million years ago: 200,000 years earlier than we thought.

Recommended for you

Crowds within crowd found to outperform 'wisdom of the crowd'

January 18, 2018

A team of researchers affiliated with institutions in Argentina, the U.S. and Germany has found that there is a way to improve on the "wisdom of the crowd"—separate the people in a given crowd into smaller groups and let ...

Study sheds new light on ancient human-turkey relationship

January 17, 2018

For the first time, research has uncovered the origins of the earliest domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico. The study also suggests turkeys weren't only prized for their meat—with demand for the birds soaring with the Mayans ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Feb 24, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1.3 / 5 (13) Feb 24, 2011
Here we go again - millions of years for the survival of bones that are so fragile they're supposed to disappear much faster than in a million years. Did they perform any C14 tests to find out how old the carbon dating made the bones out to be or did they simply ASSUME that the bones would be far too old to have any C14 left in them? Well, I suppose it wouldn't make any difference if it did - the C14 would simply be passed over as contamination. Anything to support the paradigm.
Then of course, the bible clearly states that after the fall God pronounced a punishment on the female in that her child bearing would be painful and difficult. Hence: no surprise that they've reached the conclusion that females had difficulty giving birth!
2.5 / 5 (10) Feb 24, 2011
Our veterinarian explained why we have back problems. We walk on two legs.
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 25, 2011
Here we go again - millions of years for the survival of bones that are so fragile they're supposed to disappear much faster than in a million years
Again, Kevin makes up shit and calls it shinola. Sometimes the bones are protected from erosion. But they are rare. This one was in a cave.
Did they perform any C14 tests to find out how old the carbon dating made the bones out to be or did they simply ASSUME that the bones would be far too old to have any C14 left in them?
They don't have to assume. They KNOW because C14 has been done on some Neanderthal specimens. Mostly they are too old for that. Then again C14 testing has been calibrated back to 30,000 years which is already 20,000 years farther back then you think can be done.

In this case the cave is cretaceous limestone and thus C14 testing could be contaminated by the much older limestone. Did you want it to look older?


5 / 5 (5) Feb 25, 2011
However, recent radio-metric studies (U-series) of a 14-cm thick in-situ speleothem overlying the mud-breccia containing the human bones has provided a minimum age of 350 kyr for these hominins.18
So they used uranium dating. They also have an older date based on oxygen isotopes. Seems less reliable.
the C14 would simply be passed over as contamination.
Or Kevin could just run away again.
Anything to support the paradigm.
Yes that is true. YOU will do anything.
Then of course, the bible clearly states
That man was created both after and before all the other animals. And that Flood killed all but 8 people. But there is no evidence to support that. When was that Flood Kevin?
Hence: no surprise that they've reached the conclusion that females had difficulty giving birth!
Has to do with humans having big heads. The problem has been around for far longer than you think is real.

4 / 5 (4) Feb 25, 2011
It's the fault of intelligent design that purposely gave us an inadequate back design for walking upright to punish us for our sins with constant back problems so we would see the truth and worship god. It's all part of his great plan to keep us on our knees.

Yo Kevin, who do you think is more likely to go to hell, me for my minor sins and disbelief or you for taking it on yourself to (mis)interpret the bible and the word of god to suit yourself?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.