Back ache is a pain for millions of years

London: Excruciating back pain, which is often blamed on our lifestyles, was in existence long before people started sitting on the sofa for extended periods before television screens, a Cambridge university archaeologist has found.

The high incidence of back pain apparent today is often blamed on our lazy lifestyles: we sit at computers, watch television, travel by car and eat too much.

But debilitating back ache is nothing new: it dates back millions of years to an era long before screens and sofas, according to researcher Dr Asier Gomez-Olivencia, who is looking at the fossil record of human bones.

Found among the bones of around 28 individuals at a site called Sima de los Huesos (pit of bones) in northern Spain, the almost-complete lumbar spine caused huge excitement when it was carefully reconstructed from fragments discovered during different field seasons by a team of scientists from the Centro Mixto de Evolucion Humana in Burgos.

The spine comes from the same individual as a pelvis found back in 1994, two years after the site yielded three complete crania, a university release said.

These finds pushed back the Neanderthal lineage into the Middle Pleistocene (around 500,000 years ago) and helped to clarify human evolution in that period.

While the tough bone material of human teeth and long bones is more likely to survive, human vertebrae are more fragile and prone to break and finally disappear, making them tantalisingly rare in the fossil record.

The lumbar spine found in Sima de los Huesos, known as SH1, is more or less intact.

Examination of the morphology of the pubis symphysis shows that the bones come from a man of around 45 years (distinctly elderly for the time) who lived more than half a million years ago.

The way in which the bones developed (their morphology) and the way they changed due to wear and tear (their pathology) show that this individual is likely to have suffered severe back pain.

Back problems are often considered to be a side effect of an "unnatural" lifestyle.

But the SH1 spine adds to other fossil evidence that vertebral pathologies have been present in our history for millions of years.

Living very differently to us, our ancestors suffered from back problems comparable to the conditions that cause us so much misery, the release said.

Dr Gomez-Olivencia of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies is matching the morphology and pathology of the SH1 spine to modern spines showing similar lesions.