The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Medieval famine and health: skeletal markers of childhood physiological stress in survivors of the Great Famine, 1315-1322


1Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 2Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, SUNY

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Fourteenth-century European populations suffered from a series of famines and disease epidemics, most notably the Great Famine of 1315-1322 and the Black Death of 1347-1351, which together killed tens of millions of people. Researchers have argued that famine contributed to generally poor levels of health in medieval populations and thereby to the devastating effects of the Black Death. This study examines whether the Great Famine had discernible effects on the health of people in London by analyzing skeletal pathologies in people who survived the famine but later succumbed to the Black Death. Data for this study come from the East Smithfield cemetery, London, an exclusively Black Death cemetery that was used only during the epidemic in London from 1349-1350. The East Smithfield cemetery provides an almost unequaled opportunity to study individuals who died within a short period of time from a single cause of death. This paper uses a sample of 240 people from East Smithfield, and compares the frequencies of enamel hypoplasia and cribra orbitalia between individuals who were at risk of forming such lesions (i.e. were approximately 0-12 years old) during the Great Famine and those who would have been either too old or too young to develop the lesions during that same period. The results show no significant difference in the frequency of cribra orbitalia between the “famine” and “non-famine” groups, but a significantly lower frequency of enamel hypoplasia in the “famine” group. These results might reflect the effects of selective mortality during the Great Famine.

Data for this study come from projects funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0406252) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation (#7142).

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