September 26th, 2014
Winter, Spring, Summer & Fall of Discontent
King Richard III, the king immortalized by Shakespeare as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” is enjoying a sort of rehabilitation since the discovery of his skeleton beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. First, he was confirmed to have died heroically in battle, and likely on foot (“my kingdom for a horse!”) Second, he was revealed not to have been Shakespeare’s grotesque — in fact, it’s doubtful that anyone could have detected his curvature of spine if he was dressed. After that, a facial reconstruction made him out to be an imposing and, indeed, kingly creature. And finally the cities of Leicester and York got in a tug-of-war over his bones.
But now that the first blush of our new romance with this bad boy king is fading, more intriguing details are emerging. For instance, we now have a startling window into the nature of his diet and how it changed over his life. It turns out that isotopes laid down during bone growth can tell us quite a lot about what was on his menu. Even more, differences in how different bones are deposited mean that scientists can isolate changes over time.
Teeth, for instance, are laid down in childhood and then cease to be maintained. So the isotopes embedded in teeth reveal Richard’s childhood diet. Ribs, by contrast, are continually renewed during life, and because they are relatively thin, they represent only 2-5 years before death. Thigh bones, being much larger, are renewed at a slower pace, and so record the final 10-15 years. Richard was 32 years old when he was cut down on Bosworth field, so between his teeth, ribs and thighs we’ve got his short life pretty well covered.
What it tells us is that — as a nobleman — he ate well and then when he became king, he ate really well. Historical sources document that his coronation banquet included swan, crane, egret and heron and, indeed, the bone record backs this up; Richard ate a lot of the highest status foods that could be had, all those tall birds and freshwater fish which — even back then — had already been fished into near extinction. To wash all that down, he also increased his wine drinking, likely to the tune of a bottle a day.
Of all the skeletons that have been given this bone/chemical analysis, including some very high status folk, Richard’s profile sits at the very top — at the table, the king had it better than anyone. But there are limits to the benefits. He carried intestinal parasites and there were significant amounts of lead to be found in his bones.
There’s no safe level of lead exposure — that is, even the smallest exposure damages the body. But lead was woven into Richard’s world: his plumbing (the word comes from the Latin plumbum meaning “lead”), his pewter goblets (pewter being tin often alloyed with lead) and even the wine itself. In fact, the wine may have been the greatest source, as medieval wine was frequently subpar and the most common way of making it drinkable was by dosing it with lead. If that seems strange, we should consider ourselves lucky as a culture to have lost the knowledge that lead tastes sweet.
While it’s hardly a surprise that the king was living at the top of the heap, there’s certain time-traveling thrill in the specificity of what we now know and perhaps a touch of schadenfreude in understanding that even if we’re commoners who won’t ever feast on egret, at least we’re not drinking lead-laced wine from lead-laced cups. But time-travel — as the movies tell us — is a two-way road.
So, before congratulating ourselves on the progress we’ve made, it might make sense to wonder what future scientists will make of our bones, should they find them 550 years hence in, say, the drowned metropolis of New York. It’s not hard to imagine that all our digitized records and media have reverted to unreadable nothing (who had time to make all those backups?) in which case our future scientists would be forced to make do with what they could glean from our remains and the spotty primary documents.
It would be, I’d imagine, perplexing. For one thing, the first specimen they’d analyze would be imbued with different varieties of man made chemicals, many of them poisons, some endocrine disruptors, others neurotoxins and some just plain incomprehensible. In all, they’d probably find 91 different kinds (because that’s the average number) and it’s not hard to imagine them hypothesizing that this must have been a Very Bad Person who was nevertheless quite robust and withstood all manner of poisoning attempts before finally succumbing.
But the Evil Mofo Hypothesis wouldn’t last once they started analyzing other long-dead residents of our culture. They’d find that absolutely everyone came complete with a “body burden” of dozens of toxins, with the total number of types topping 700. Some would be deeply mysterious. I am personally dubious that anyone would theorize that, in an effort to save a relatively small number drowsy cigarette smokers from setting their furniture alight, it was decided to douse every piece of stuffed furniture, from automobile seats to infant cribs, with a flame retardant that shed a toxic dust which damaged the liver, thyroid and brain.
Other compounds would be readily identifiable as poisons though, again, I’m not quite sure what our successors (descendants might be pushing it a bit) will make of a time when it was considered reasonable to distribute 3 pounds of biocide per person per year, and apply it directly to food while it was being grown. There’s a slight chance our scientists might happen upon a printout of Environmental Working Group’s Human Toxome Project, which might give them some clues about organophosphate pesticides and some of the mysterious behavioral scourges that afflicted our children.
And then there’s the plastic. They’d find plastic universally, broken down into extremely small pieces and distributed quite literally everywhere. But if they were careful as the disinterred the remains, they’d find clusters of microscopic plastic that had once been embedded in flesh, swallowed or breathed in, never to escape.
And lastly, if they were very, very thorough, they might detect nano-materials. These are unbelievably infinitesimal versions of common things like silver and clay, which don’t behave in common ways because they’re unbelievably small. Silver turns out to be a powerful antimicrobial and clay seals the itty-bitty pores in packaging, keeping foods fresher longer. Of course, nano materials behave differently with everything they interact this, people included. Good? Bad? No one knows because, just like the 50k or so approved industrial chemicals of our era, real research is damn thin on the ground.
What our future scientists will make of all this, I’ll never know. But it’s hard to avoid imagining that they’ll see us as a prosperous and powerful society quite literally killing itself with the detritus of its prosperity. Will they pity us? Laugh at us? Or would they, in some fundamental way, dismiss us?
If they could, by means of some assay yet unknown, see into the breast milk sipped by our newborns and take note of what they found there — the rocket fuel precursors, the industrial coolants, the flame retardants — all carefully distilled by the mother’s body and fed to the child at a contamination concentration far outweighing that of adults, they would unquestionably lump us together with King Richard as ignorant and doomed, victims to things that we were too witless to understand.
But in doing so, they’d miss one key difference. We know what we’re breathing, drinking and eating and Richard didn’t. But had he known — met a soothsayer at the crossroads, perhaps — he could have given orders to change his cups, swap his wine for mead and get his water from the stream. He could have solved it in a day.
It’s good to be king.