Science and Technology Facilities Council
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No stone left unturned to solve 12,000-year-old medical mystery

A mystery surrounding three stone-like objects found within the pelvic region of a 12,000-year-old human skeleton has been solved thanks to the analytical capability of the UK’s neutron beam research facility.

Using the UK’s leading neutron and muon source, Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS facility, archaeologists have been able to make a surprising discovery which will change the way medics view the condition of prostate stones. Previously it was believed that this condition was exclusive to the modern era but in fact it appears to have existed in humans as far back as prehistoric times.

While excavating a cemetery in Central Sudan in 2013, a team of archaeologists from the UK and Italy unearthed a pre-Mesolithic burial with an unusual feature.

There were three stone-like objects found within the human skeleton. Archaeologists excavating the burial site found these objects within the pelvic area of an adult male and initially thought they could be kidney, bladder or gall stones.

The stones were oval and irregular in shape with diameters ranging between 26 and 30mm, weighing between 12 and 15g. Nowadays, prostatic stones are a common condition for modern men, affecting about 75% of the middle-aged population – although most stones only grow to a few millimetres in diameter before being treated.

After extensive tests utilising state-of-the-art technology, including the ‘Ines’ diffractometer at ISIS, the UK’s centre for studying the properties of materials on the atomic scale, scientists discovered the stones were primary prostatic calculi – or prostate stones, caused by a chronic infection.

Dr Antonella Scherillo, the lead scientist operating the beam at ISIS, said: “We were delighted to be able to help the archaeologists find out the nature of these unusual objects.

“Using ISIS’ powerful neutron beam we were able to analyse the phase composition of the object without causing any damage.

“This is how we found out the stones were in fact prostate stones – a remarkable discovery considering the age of the burial site.”

Although archaeologists cannot say whether these stones killed him, they were large enough to cause intense pain and affect the quality of life of this man.

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