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These 12,000-Year-Old Prostate Stones Likely Led to One Prehistoric Man’s Painful Death

The walnut-sized stones were found inside a skeleton buried in modern-day Sudan

The walnut-sized stone likely caused back pain, leg pain and difficulty urinating. (Donatella Usai et al., PLOS ONE)
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When archaeologists found three walnut-sized stones inside a skeleton buried at Al Khiday, a pre-Mesolithic settlement located in modern-day Sudan, they thought that rocks had somehow rolled into the gravesite. But upon further testing they discovered that these “rocks” were in fact large (very, very large) prostate stones, which likely caused one prehistoric man considerable pain before his death, Rossella Lorenzi reports for Seeker. They are believed to be the oldest prostatic stones ever discovered.

A team of British and Italian researchers found the culprits inside the pelvic area of an adult male, Lorenzi writes. And once they realized that they were dealing with byproducts of disease, they began investigating the origin of the stones and whether they developed in the kidney, gallbladder or prostate. According to a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE that documented the find, analysis showed that the stones consist, in part, of the mineral whitlockite—an unusual form of calcium phosphate commonly found in prostatic stones. The researchers also identified bacterial imprints on the stones, suggesting that the man experienced “an ongoing infectious process” during his lifetime.

Small prostatic stones are quite common in men and usually don’t cause much distress. But stones as large as the ones found in the skeleton at Al Khiday would likely have been terribly painful, Lorenzi reports, causing back pain, leg pain and difficulty urinating. As they grew larger, the stones may have caused a host of other nasty conditions: pelvic dilatation, renal scarring, and kidney failure. It is likely that the stones, in one way or another, led to the man’s death.

Researchers did not find signs of any other significant illnesses at the Al Khiday cemetery, which contains 190 graves. The people who populated the area, in fact, appear to have been tall and robust, with no pervasive health issues—aside from aggressively bad teeth.

But the discovery of the stones suggests that our ancestors suffered from some of the same conditions that affect humans today. As the authors of the study write, prostate stones “can no longer be considered a disease of the modern era.” The unfortunate history of such stones likely extend as far back as the history of civilization, inflicting pain on both modern people and ancients alike. 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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