The Unique Remains of Eunuchs

Carlo Maria Broschi, whose opera stage name was Farinelli, was born in 1705. As a boy he was already well known for his singing abilities, and in 1717 he was castrated by his family in order to preserve his voice. As a castrato or eunuch, he would not be susceptible to the hormones of puberty that would alter his voice. He was lauded by audiences for his abilities, and traveled throughout the courts of Europe to perform. He died in 1782 and was originally buried at the monastery of Santa Croce in Bologna. However, he was moved to cemetery of La Certosa in Bologna after his original burial site was destroyed by the Napoleonic Wars. In July, 2006, Farinelli’s remains were disinterred from the Certosa cemetery. His skeleton was recovered from an underground tomb. The bones had been stacked and were not individually protected from the elements, which caused their condition to degrade, but the majority of the remains were still present. The bones were analyzed by Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti (2011) in the Journal of Anatomy in order to lifestyle, habits and possible diseases, as well as the physiology of a castrato. The results of these findings have been discussed by both Kristina Killgrove and Discovery News.

Belcastro et al. 2011

The analysis by Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti (2011) found that it was likely that the changes in hormones from being castrated led to changes in the bones of Farinelli. Fundamental to this was the discovery of internal frontal hyperostosis, a pathology found almost exclusive in post-menopausal women. Internal frontal hyperostosis is a thickening of the frontal bone caused by expansion of the diploe. The continuous pattern of thickening allows for the pathology to be distinguished from other diseases that cause internal thickening in the cranium such as  Paget’s disease, acromegaly, fibrous dysplasia and meningiom. The research team found that all severe cases of internal frontal hyperostosis occurred in older women, or men who had suffered hormonal imbalances from testicular atrophy or castration. They have argued that it is unlikely that this would have effected his lifestyle, but was merely a byproduct of his castration and loss of testosterone.

Belcastro et al. 2011

Another study of eunuchs was done by  Eng, Zhang, and Zhu (2010) on the remains of two eunuchs from the Ming Dynasty in China. These males were castrated in order to preserve them from sin so that they could protect royal women. The individuals they examined consisted of two adult males from a cemetery at Wutasi,  Beijing. They found that one of the males had disproportionate bones, a trait which can be attributed to late epiphyseal closure. Without a source of testosterone, epiphyses close much later, if not at all (a trait which was also noted in Farinelli, who maintained epiphyseal lines into old adulthood that should have been obliterated by 35). Oral health showed that both individuals had a hard childhood, and one of the skeletons bears the marks of continued hardship throughout life- manifested in osteoporosis and degeneration of the bone. However, there is no mention as to any changes in the cranium, specifically the frontal bone. It is difficult to discern whether there is any endocranial expansion as seen in Farinelli, since the skulls are intact.

Eunuchs are a unique type of individuals, males deprived of male hormones. Since hormones have a major effect on the growth of bones, it isn’t surprising that the skeletons of these three eunuchs bear evidence of their castration. As we learn more about eunuchs, it may call into question some interpretations of previous materials. Eunuch remains have a tendency to appear younger than they actually are, and are more gracile than normal males. Is it possible that some young adult women are actually old adult males who have been castrated?

Works Cited

Killgrove 2011. Famed Farinelli’s Flawed Frontalis. Powered by Osteons.

Discovery News 2011. Legendary Eunuch had PMD.

MG Belcastro, G Fornaciari, & V Mariotti 2011. Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) and castration: the case of the famous singer Farinelli (1705-1782). Journal of Anatomy PMID:21740437.

Eng, Zhang, and Zhu 2010. Skeletal effects of castration on two eunuchs of Ming China. In Anthropology Science 118(2):107-116.


One response to “The Unique Remains of Eunuchs

  1. I suppose it’s possible that an incomplete skeleton could be labeled as a young female when it was actually a castrated male, especially if sex estimation is made solely on the basis of cranial morphology. But I don’t think there’s any evidence that the changes in the pubic bone that are the best discriminator of males/females are related only to hormonal changes at puberty. (Although I admittedly don’t know the literature on ontogeny that well.) Farinelli was also quite tall – a multivariate discrimination of postcranial measurements (e.g., Fordisc) may also be able to discern male eunuch from female. Of course, we won’t know for sure until we have a bigger collection of individuals known to have suffered hormonal imbalances/castration.

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