Probable evidence of scurvy in subadults from archeological sites in Peru

Authors

  • Donald J. Ortner,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560
    2. Department of Archaeological Sciences, The University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP, United Kingdom
    • Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560.
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  • Erin H. Kimmerle,

    1. Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68508
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  • Melanie Diez

    1. Office of Professional Development and Research, American Chiropractic Association, Arlington, Virginia 22209
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Abstract

Subadult scurvy is not well documented in archeological human remains despite the existence of many biomedical references indicating that bone changes do occur in some cases and, because of this, should be observable in human burials. There are several potential reasons for this gap in our knowledge of scurvy. Not all children who suffered from scurvy died of the disease or from other causes when they had scurvy. Scurvy may not leave characteristic bone changes in every case of the disease. Some of the pathological conditions associated with scurvy have been known for many years, but these features may be rare or difficult to differentiate from other pathological conditions. Recently a lesion of the skull has been described (Ortner and Ericksen [1997] International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 7:212–220) that is probably pathognomonic for scurvy, specifically porous and sometimes hypertrophic lesions of the greater wing of the sphenoid. This lesion is bilateral and highly associated with evidence of inflammation at other anatomical sites in the skull. A survey of subadult skulls (N = 363) in the human skeletal collection from Peru at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, reveals a prevalence of 10% of skulls that exhibit plausible evidence of scurvy. Some cases of scurvy also have cribra orbitalia that has been attributed to anemia. In most of the Peruvian scurvy cases, anemia is an unlikely possibility because there is no evidence of marrow hyperplasia. This highlights the need for caution in using lesions of the orbit as an indicator of anemia when there is no other evidence of this disease elsewhere in the skeleton. Anatomical evidence of scurvy offers the potential of providing new and important evidence of diet in archeological human populations. Am J Phys Anthropol 108:321–331, 1999. © 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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