Photograph by Simona Minozzi, Endocrine Society
Published November 9, 2012
At 6 feet, 8 inches (202 centimeters) tall, the man would have been a giant in third-century A.D. Rome, where men averaged about 5 and a half feet (167 centimeters) tall. By contrast, today's tallest man measures 8 feet, 3 inches (251 centimeters).
Finding such skeletons is rare, because gigantism itself is extremely rare, today affecting about three people in a million worldwide. The condition begins in childhood, when a malfunctioning pituitary gland causes abnormal growth.
Two partial skeletons, one from Poland and another from Egypt, have previously been identified as "probable" cases of gigantism, but the Roman specimen is the first clear case from the ancient past, study leader Simona Minozzi, a paleopathologist at Italy's University of Pisa, said by email.
Piecing Together a Giant
The unusual skeleton was found in 1991 during an excavation at a necropolis in Fidenae (map), a territory indirectly managed by Rome.
At the time, the Archaeological Superintendence of Rome, which led the project, noted that the man's tomb was abnormally long. It was only during a later anthropological examination, though, that the bones too were found to be unusual. Shortly thereafter, they were sent to Minozzi's group for further analysis.
To find out if the skeleton had gigantism, the team examined the bones and found evidence of skull damage consistent with a pituitary tumor, which disrupts the pituitary gland, causing it to overproduce human growth hormone.
Other findings—such as disproportionately long limbs and evidence that the bones were still growing even in early adulthood—support the gigantism diagnosis, according to the study, published October 2 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
His early demise—likely between 16 and 20—might also point to gigantism, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems, said Minozzi, who emphasized that the cause of death remains unknown. (Explore an interactive of the human body.)
A Giant of the Stage?
Charlotte Roberts, a bioarchaeologist at the U.K.'s Durham University, said she's "certainly convinced with the diagnosis" of gigantism. But she'd like to know more.
"You can't just study the disease, you have to look at the wider impact of how people functioned in society, and whether they were treated any differently," Roberts said.
Goods buried with a body, for example, can offer hints to the person's role in life and how they were treated in their community.
The Roman giant, though, was found with no funerary artifacts, study leader Minozzi said. And, she added, his burial was typical of the time, suggesting he was included as part of society.
"We know nothing about the role or presence of giants in the Roman world," she said—other than the fact that the second century A.D. emperor Maximinus Thrax was described in literature as a "human mountain."
Minozzi noted, though, that imperial Roman high society "developed a pronounced taste for entertainers with evident physical malformations, such as hunchbacks and dwarfs—so we can assume that even a giant generated enough interest and curiosity."
Whatever the Roman giant's lot in life, the information to be gleaned after his death might someday further science.
"Normally a doctor will be looking at a patient with a disease over short term span," Durham University's Roberts said. "We've been able to look at skeletons from archaeological sites that are thousands of years old. You can start to look at trends of how diseases have changed in frequency over time." (See pictures of ancient Egyptian mummies with heart disease.)
If by studying ancient remains "we can teach the living and help them plan for the future," she said, "that's a good thing."
You thought Yosemite's Dawn Wall looked tough? See photos of 10 of the world's hardest, most influential free climbing achievements.
Loggerhead sea turtles can return to the beach where they were born using the Earth's magnetic field as a guide, a new study says.
Some homeowners are seeing high heating and electric bills also, even though gas prices have fallen to their lowest point in years.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.