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

Was juvenile scurvy endemic to Butrint, Albania during the Middle Ages?


Anthropology, Michigan State University

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Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) has recently received substantial attention in the paleopathological literature. A growing body of research suggests that the disease may have been widespread in southeastern Europe during the Late Roman and Medieval periods. We contribute to this evidence the methodology and results of a macroscopic assessment of porotic lesions in a sample of subadult skeletons (N=67) from Butrint, Albania. Lesions consistent with scurvy were observed in 31% (21/67) of juveniles from both rural and urban contexts in the vicinity of Butrint. Affected individuals date to Late Antiquity and the Medieval Period, suggesting that scurvy was a health problem in the region throughout the Middle Ages. Because lesions caused by scurvy may appear grossly similar to and occur at skeletal sites often affected by lesions potentially indicative of other pathologies, great care should be taken when diagnosing the condition. Our approach places a heavy emphasis on the overall pattern of skeletal involvement. A diagnosis of scurvy was suggested only when an individual exhibited abnormal porosity at multiple skeletal sites commonly reported in the paleopathological and clinical literature. The juvenile remains from Butrint are significant because of the extraordinarily high prevalence of scurvy and, consequently, for providing many examples of the skeletal distribution of scorbutic lesions. In addition, we are able to identify morphological features that may aid in distinguishing scorbutic lesions from those having other possible etiologies.

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