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The (Possible) Bones of ‘The Unsullied’

Earlier today, I was reading a report published on Nature.com about the pathology of an 18th century singer named Gaspare Pacchierotti. What made this article particularly compelling was that the singer was castrated, or castrato.

As I carefully read through the analysis and results of Pacchierotti’s remains, it occurred to me that Daenerys Targaryen’s Unsullied would make an awful army!

According to George R.R. Martin’s book, A Storm of Swords, the Unsullied begin training as soldiers at age five, and they are fully castrated as children. It is also explained that they will never be as strong as men who have not been castrated (true), but their discipline makes up for their lack of strength.

Unsullied_armor_and_helmets

 

“The Unsullied” as depicted in the HBO series, “Game of Thrones” Image via gameofthrones.wikia.com

 

Okay. That sounds reasonable, but let’s examine the bones of others who have been castrated and consider the biological effects. Then you tell me what you think!

There are a few well examined and analyzed remains of castrati- individuals who have been castrated. We can also draw on historical documentation.We can use this information to help  formulate an argument.

Skeletal changes will only appear in those individuals who were castrated before puberty. This is because sex hormones help to regulate growth. Interruptions or changes to normal or expected growth patterns can often be viewed in the skeletal remains. Since the Unsullied are said to be fully castrated as children, the skeletal evidence that I’m using is a good proxy for the type of pathology that one would likely see with this fictional army of badasses.

Dr. Meyer Melicow provides a good description of castrated men that can help us to imagine what we would expect to an Unsullied warrior to look like. “The castrati were usually tall, with a disproportionately large thorax, infantile larynx, long, spindly legs, and flat feet. Most were handsome with feminine facial features. They were beardless, although scalp hair was luxuriant. Gynecomastia was at times prominent; they were wide-hipped, somewhat obese and a few had steatopygia” (748-9).

Gynecomastia is an increased amount of male breast tissue that is caused by a hormone imbalance. Steatopygia is substantial amount of fat around the buttocks.

In other words, our Unsullied should be tall, hairless except for their heads, large chest, thick hips, knock-kneed, and have high voices. Some of them would also likely have robust booties, and some boob.

Granted, they could shave their heads, but the deep voice we hear from ‘Greyworm’ on Game of Thrones would probably not be a thing.

You may be thinking that a diet and exercise regiment may help to counter some of those traits. So, let’s consider muscle mass and bone growth.

“Testosterone is important for skeletal growth both because of its direct effects on bone and its ability to stimulate muscle growth, which puts greater stress on the bone and thus increases bone formation”(“Bone Health and Osteoporosis,” 2014).

As previously noted, low testosterone will influence skeletal growth. Without the cues of testosterone, the skeleton would likely experience slower epiphyseal joining or the fusion of growth plates. This fusion drives growth- so its delay is likely why prepubescent castrated individuals have been recorded as being tall.

In the analysis of Pacchierotti’s remains, the researchers made note that even though he was 81 at the age of death, “the epiphyseal lines on the iliac crests were visible. These lines usually are fused at 23 years old and no more traces can be found in 90–100% of over 35 years old males.

The lack of testosterone also leads to a loss of muscle mass and body strength. I love that the Unsullied are sooooo disciplined that we shouldn’t notice. But could they take a hit? And if so, how many? I imagine that they would not be deterred by the pain of the hit, but they would likely be very injured.

Which leads me to another issue that occurs after castration. Bone mineral density starts to decrease and continues to do so over time. A few hours of daily exercise can help combat this decrease, but it doesn’t halt the progress. This bone degeneration leads to osteoporosis- making their bone susceptible to fractures.

L0008764 Paleopathology: Human femurs from Roman period, Tell Fara

Human femurs and a humerus from Roman period- evidence of healed fractures (not from castrated individuals) Image: CC by 4.0

The Unsullied drink a potion called Wine of Courage which helps them to dull and stifle their pain responses. But as far as I know, it doesn’t regrow and strengthen bone. So, in this world where they are still human male castrati, but have access to liquid permanent nerve deadener, it stands to reason that our soldiers would get all beat up and broken, but not care. They’d keep fighting even  with a tibia sticking out the side of their leg! I guess that’s advantageous.

Perhaps the continued remodeling of fractured bone acts as a bone strengthening method, similar to Beatrix’s hand in Kill Bill.  Yikes! Can you imagine that- but your whole body?!

kill bill

 

I suppose the most beneficial trait that the Unsullied is that they are ready to die.

Since they may not live very long and don’t feel pain, they may be spared some of the long term effects of osteoporosis, arthritis, and other degenerative skeletal disorders. bone_comparison_of_healthy_and_osteoporotic_vertibrae

However, I can imagine that being able to follow a command is not as valuable as being able to take a hit or deliver a blow with enough power or force to incapacitate the enemy.

I guess they could all just be super quiet and invoke the element of surprise.

I know the Game of Thrones universe is make believe, but it’s fun to play ‘what if’.

What do you think?

 

 

Cited:

Meyer, M. & Melicow, M. Castrati singers and the lost “cords”.Bull. N. Y. Acad. Med. 59, 744–764 (1983).
Office of the Surgeon General (US). Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville (MD): Office of the Surgeon General (US); 2004. 2, The Basics of Bone in Health and Disease. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK45504/
Zanatta, A. et al. Occupational markers and pathology of the castrato singer Gaspare Pacchierotti (1740–1821). Sci. Rep. 6, 28463; doi: 10.1038/srep28463 (2016).

1 Comment on The (Possible) Bones of ‘The Unsullied’

  1. Cool article. Lots to learn about fact vs fiction and the real effects of hormones on the human body. Talk about writers perogative.

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