It turns out, there's a lot you can tell about a person just by looking at their ears, even if they had lived hundreds of years ago.

Case in point, researchers studying bony remains from an ancient Panamanian burial ground have gleaned a great deal of knowledge about the individuals and culture that once occupied this part of the world, from looking at their ear bones alone, reports

Many of the remains contain curious bony "bumps," also known as exostoses, in the ear canal. Interestingly, this is also a feature found in the ears of one very particular group of modern peoples: namely, surfers. In fact, the condition is often referred to as "surfer's ear."

No one is certain what causes it, but the most widely accepted theory is that cold water, or possibly cold temperatures caused by wind and water, make the bone react by packing on a few layers for protection. It's similar to the way bone spurs form on the feet and in other places where there is constant irritation or stress.

One feature that's consistent with surfer's ear, however, is that it is only common with cold water surfers. So it's definitely got something to do with the temperature of the water.

"Bone is a dynamic tissue that responds to external stimuli, so changes in bone structure provide great clues about where and how a person lived and died," said Nicole Smith-Guzmán, bioarchaeologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "When I looked at an additional 125 skulls from nine burial sites across Panama, I found seven cases of surfers' ear in males and one in a female skull, all from sites near the Gulf of Panama."

Economic epicenter for pearls and oyster shells

So does this mean that ancient Panamanians discovered surfing? Well, maybe. More than likely, however, they engaged in a far more exotic sport: pearl-diving. The region has long been known as an economic epicenter in the New World for pearls and oyster shells, which were highly valued even before the arrival of Europeans. In fact, when the Spanish first arrived here, they chronicled tales of expert divers who were trained from childhood to dive down and collect pearl oysters.

Some of the largest pearls ever found were retrieved from the Gulf of Panama.

But wait a minute. Isn't Panama in the tropics? Surfer's ear is supposed to occur in cold water ocean-goers, so how did these ancient Panamanian pearl-divers develop it?

It just so happens that the water in the Gulf of Panama is subject to strong trade winds that seasonally force warm surface water out into the Pacific. Colder, deep water rises to the surface to replace it. It's an unusual pocket of nutrient-rich, cold water, found only at this spot, and no where else along other nearby coastlines. This is also the reason that this is the one place where you can find the biggest oysters.

"Silvery mother-of-pearl ornaments, and orange and purple ones from two large 'thorny' oysters in the Spondylus genus were common in burials and comprised an important trade item in the region," explained Smith-Guzmán.

And so, some of the mysteries of these ancient peoples might very well have been solved, all thanks to a curious link between a condition shared by modern surfers and a lost culture of ancient Panamanian pearl-divers.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Ancient Panamanian pearl-divers had ears just like modern surfers
The ear bones of ancient Panamanians tells us a lot about their lives along the ocean.