25 Days of Skeletal Facts: Day 4 – The Femur

Right femur, anterior view (Gray’s Anatomy illustration 1918)

The femur is the one and only bone of your thigh. It has the distinction of being the longest and strongest bone in your body. The head of the femur (see image to the left) forms the ball and socket joint of your hip and the distal end of the femur (medial and lateral condyles) articulates with the tibia to form the hinge joint of the knee. The femur also serves as an attachment point in some way for all of your gluteal and thigh musculature – over 20 muscles.

During our brief discussion of archaeomusicology yesterday I mentioned that mammalian femora (plural for femur) along with tibiae have been fashioned into bone flutes. Archaeologists have also recently uncovered a Bronze Age (3200 BC – 600 BC) whistle carved from a human femur and used as a grave good. Radiocarbon analysis revealed that the bone belonged to an individual that lived several generations before the burial it was discovered in. The archaeologists suggest that the “deposition may be the end-point of complex trajectories in which human remains were curated amongst the living” (Booth & Brück 2020).

Human remains can hold much cultural and symbolic power, and not only within communities or from generation to generation. As we will see in the next section, we continually discuss the bones of individuals who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Famous Femora: We definitely do not have time to go into the full back story of King Tutankhamun – King Tut – but I’m going to assume (hope?) you at least know why his femur is included in this section. Essentially he was pharaoh during the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom, was the last of his family to rule, lived from c. 1342-1325 BC and his cause of death has been somewhat of a famous cold case among egyptologists. His mummy has been x-rayed and now CT scanned numerous times and one of the proposed causes of death is an infection following the break of his femur from an accident like a chariot fall (Hawass et al. 2010). But others have attributed the femur break to damage sustained during the initial excavation (ScienceDirect 2005), back in the day when some archaeology was barely disguised looting. Another femur in the spotlight more recently was that of King Richard III (see image below). Again no time for the full back story on this King of England who ruled from 1483-85 and died at the Battle of Bosworth, but his femur was analyzed for dietary and geographic isotopes. King Richard III’s femur suggests that he was residing in Eastern England and differences in dietary values expressed in the bone of his femur and that of his ribs suggest his consumption of luxury foods and wine increased before his death (Lamb et al. 2014).

Skeleton of King Richard III. From Getty Images

That’s a wrap on the femur, both famous and otherwise. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the bony pelvis, and how Dr. Temperance Brennan can determine the sex of a skeleton so quickly.

REFERENCES & MORE TO EXPLORE

Femur. Encyclopaedia Britannica Anatomy & Physiology pages. 2020

Bronze age Britons made keepsakes from parts of dead relatives, archaeologists say. Sample, Ian. The Guardian. 31 Aug 2020

Death is not the end: radiocarbon and histo-taphonomic evidence for the curation and excarnation of human remains in Bronze Age Britain. Booth & Brück. Antiquity. 2020

Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III. Lamb et al. Journal of Archaeological Science. 2014

Ancestry and Pathology of King Tutankhamun’s Family Hawass et al. JAMA. 2010

Fractured Leg Bone Not The End Of Tutankhamen Mystery. ScienceDaily. 1 April 2005

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