New research on a 2,000-year-old tobacco pipe sculpture discovered in the Ohio Valley has upended a long-held theory on what it truly depicts.
The 8-inch carved pipe was discovered in 1901, and features what’s thought to be the likeness of a Native American with achondroplasia – a common form of dwarfism characterized by short limbs, an enlarged head, and an average-sized trunk.
But according to the new study, this may not be the case.
A bulge at the base of the figure’s neck is a tell-tale sign of thyroid disease, as is the short stature, researchers now say, and it appears even shorter due to the squatted position that likely represents a ceremonial dance.
‘What caught my eye on this pipe statue was an obvious tumor on the neck that looked remarkably like a goiter or thyroid tumor,’ said anthropologist and geologist Kenneth Tankersley. This bulge can be seen in the neck of the figure, above
The statue was found in 1901 at the Adena Burial Mound in Ross County Ohio.
Its stunted appearance coupled with the discovery of achondroplastic human remains suggested the statue depicted an Ohio Valley Native American with the condition.
A closer look, however, suggests a different disorder may be behind its features.
‘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 achondroplastic dwarf,’ says anthropologist and geologist Kenneth Tankersley, from the University of Cincinnati.
‘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.’
The 8-inch carved pipe features what’s thought to be the likeness of a Native American with achondroplasia. But a new study suggests this may not be the case
In the new study, Tankersley teamed up with Frederic Bauduer, a visiting biological anthropologist and paleopathologist from the University of Bordeaux in Paris, to re-analyze the sculpture.
Radiocarbon dating indicated the tobacco pipe is about 4,000 years old.
Not only was the region particularly prone to goiter prior to the 1920, when iodized salt was introduced, but tobacco smoking is known to increase the risk in low iodine intake zones.
All of these factors point to iodine deficiency and a resulting thyroid disease as the underlying condition.
‘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 said.
‘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.’
WHAT IS HYPOTHYROIDISM AND GOITER?
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
A condition in which the thyroid gland fails to produce enough of certain hormones.
Women, especially those over the age of 60, are more likely to be diagnosed with an underactive thryoid.
It upsets the normal balance of chemical reactions and over time, if untreated, can cause obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
Is an abnormal enlargement of the thryoid, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck.
Although usually painless, the condition can cause a cough and make it difficult for a person’ to breathe or swallow.
According to the researchers, the lower limbs are not shorter than usual, and would actually be normal size.
The tilted squat position, which is common among people with hypothyroidism, and signs that the figure may be in the stance of a ceremonial dance can also explain their appearance.
‘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,’ says Tankersley.
The squat position, common among people with hypothyroidism, and signs that the figure may be in the stance of a ceremonial dance can explain the appearance
‘The regalia the figure is wearing is also strongly indicative of ancient Native Ohio Valley Shawnee, Delarare, and Ojibwa to the north and Miami Nation tribes in Indiana.
‘The traditional headdress, pierced ears with expanded spool earrings and loincloth with serpentine motif on the front and feathered bustle on the back are also still worn by local Native tribes during ceremonial events today.’
The researchers say the 2,000-year-old pipe is the first known example of a goiter in ancient Native American art on the continent.
It’s also one of the oldest known in the Western Hemisphere.
‘Art history is beginning to help substantiate many scientific hypotheses,’ says Tankersley.
‘Because artists are such keen students of anatomy, artisans such as this ancient Adena pipe sculptor could portray physical maladies with great accuracy, even before they were aware of what the particular disease was.’
In the new study, Tankersley teamed up with Frederic Bauduer, a visiting biological anthropologist and paleopathologist from the University of Bordeaux in Paris, to re-analyze the sculpture