A spotlight on our members's work abroad: Joke Somers and Isabelle De Groote

In this Spotlight of the Month, we’re introducing some of our members who are working/have worked abroad: Isabelle De Groote and Joke Somers. Isabelle is currently working in a British university while Joke just came back from a Swiss university. Discover some of their work.

Isabelle joke members working abroad october 2017 blog banner corrected



Joke Somers

Joke worked as an assistant in anthropology in the Department of Physical Anthropology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Bern. Specialized in human remains and medieval burial practices, she recently co-authored an article on an interesting large-scale study comparing Swiss material.


Published article: A Medieval/Early Modern Alpine Population from Zweisimmen, Switzerland: Anthropology and Palaeopathology of a Comparative Study, IJOA 2017.


The aim of this project is to establish a comparison between the alpine individuals buried at Zweisimmen and those from other cemeteries, dating to the medieval and early modern periods in Switzerland. To achieve this, 134 skeletons from the rural cemetery of Zweisimmen were studied, analysing both funerary practices such as orientation of the bodies and position of the hands, and the anthropological traits of each individual. The results were compared to 17 published Swiss cemeteries - both rural and urban populations - from 14th to 19th centuries in order to gain better understanding of chronological and regional patterns in the area. 

Radiocarbon (AMS) dating on fourteen skeletal remains, at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Bern, shows that the cemetery was in use since the 13th century and its occupation seemed to have continued up until the 19th century.

Aside from single burials, there were four multiple burials at Zweisimmen cemetery. These burials contained 4, 5, 12 and 26 individuals closely placed next to each other. They indicate periods of unusual mortality rates that can be linked to plague, according to written sources. All but the last group dated to the 14th to 16th centuries. General position of the bodies was supine, in all the different chronologies. However, orientation of the bodies changed through time: the oldest ones were buried facing east and the most recent facing north. Position of the hands varies on both chronologies, although it seems that individuals were buried with both hands on the pelvis during the 17th to 19th centuries. All these changes in burial practices can be explained by the appearance of the Reformation, which entailed an increase in individualisation.

Even though the cemetery was not completely excavated, the demographic distribution can be considered to represent attritional mortality. The percentage of non-adult population is 29% and neonates account for 12%. The latter data suggests an under-representation of children in this burial ground, as children mortality ratios were higher during this period. It is possible that children were buried in another area of the cemetery that hasn’t been excavated.

The stature values from Zweisimmen cemetery fall into the range of other medieval sites from Switzerland. The average stature is 169 ± 3.4 cm for men and 161.4 ± 5.2 cm for women.

Dental, periosteal, infectious, traumatic and other pathological indicators were described and analysed.

Diagnosis of each individual was made  when possible. A drastic increase of caries and antemortem tooth loss was found in the population dating to 17th-19th centuries. This observation can be related to the changes in diet or in food processing.

In Zweisimmen, cribra orbitalia was found in moderate frequencies, especially in children, with no significant differences between the different chronologies. Also, two cases of rickets were identified in children. As livestock farming in Zweisimmen was of great importance, it seems unlikely that the cause of rickets would be diet related.

While several indicators of infectious diseases were found in the sample, the diagnoses were rarely conclusive. No morphologically clear cases of skeletal tuberculosis were found. The rib and vertebral lesions analysed can be attributed to general pulmonary diseases, with an increase of importance through time. A similar prevalence is recognised in other cemeteries from Switzerland. A possible case of congenital syphilis was identified as well. The overall signs of infectious disease seem to be more frequent in the individuals dated back to the 17th-19th centuries as opposed to those from the 14th to 16th centuries. The increase of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis in the early modern period is common. Nevertheless, it was not possible to determine whether or not there were significant differences in the prevalence of these diseases in the different chronologies.

Results show that the living conditions of rural Zweisimmen were similar to those in other late medieval and early modern environments in Switzerland, presenting similar hygiene and nutritional patterns, as well as presence of several infectious diseases that were likely influenced by a large network of exchange due to trading routes.


Isabelle De Groote

Isabelle works as lecturer in Liverpool John Moores University (England).

Known for her work with her colleagues on the Eoanthropus dawsoni hoax, a.k.a. Piltdown Man, she is specialized in palaeoanthropology, bioarchaeology and evolutionary biology. Recently she co-authored several articles on human fossils and enamel hypoplasia.


Published article: Behavioral inferences from the high levels of dental chipping in Homo Naledi, AJPA 2017


This article focuses on the dental aspect of the newly-defined species from South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, Homo Naledi. The objective of the research was to establish possible behavioral causes for antemortem chipping found on Homo Naledi’s teeth. Permanent teeth’s occlusal wear was observed macroscopically in order to record the location, number and severity of these fractures. The material used in this study consists of 156 H. naledi permanent teeth from the cave’s Dinaledi Chamber. Comparisons were made with two other assemblages of  South African fossil hominin species, non-human primates and modern humans.


Antemortem dental chipping occurs, through repetitive mechanical processes, when a tooth comes regularly into contact with an object sufficiently hard to cause breakage in the enamel. Both the properties of the enamel and the object determine the extent of the damage. Several possible behavioral inferences are identified for dental chipping: food processing, accidents, diet, environmental factors, social behaviour, etc. Different dietary items cause such enamel fractures at varying rates and sizes. Enamel properties, microstructure and the possible bias that they can lead to were taken into account in this study. Known datasets show that enamel differs between species, but also between an individual’s teeth and even across the surface of a single tooth. It has been suggested that cracks form following natural weaknesses as well.

Results indicate that the teeth of Homo Naledi  were exposed to acute trauma on a regular basis. All individuals were affected by predominately small dental chipping. Interproximal areas of the teeth are more affected than other aspects. The occlusal wear is steep and the dentine is cupped on some molars. Therefore, dental chipping was likely caused by a masticatory behavior: a diet containing hard and resistant food, or contaminants like grit. This pattern suggests that, compared to other African fossil hominins, H. naledi differed noticeably in their diet, behavior, environment, and/or specialized masticatory processing.

Further studies may confirm and/or complete these conclusions. Other researchers are analysing microwear on Homo Naledi teeth.

physical anthropology Switzerland Britain Piltdown Man Homo Naledi Zweissimmen medieval early modern skeletal remains dental macrowear chipping