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

Complications of co-morbidities: picking out skeletal indicators of scurvy


Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, Canada

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Conditions that were almost certainly due to vitamin C deficiency have been reported from a number of early texts, and it is likely that scurvy has occurred for a range of reasons since the adoption of agriculture, and possibly earlier. Being able to suggest that scurvy was present enables more nuanced biocultural interpretations to be made, but a significant problem for those dealing with archaeological human bone are the complications that co-morbidites can bring to suggesting a diagnosis.

Clinical studies have demonstrated that individuals with vitamin C deficiency are more likely to develop a range of pathological conditions and are also likely to experience pathological trauma. In archaeological bone picking out trauma associated with scurvy from other forms of trauma may be very difficult. Those with scurvy also frequently develop anemia, are more prone to infections and have impacted recovery, and the association with vitamin D deficiency (rickets) was noted as early as 1650. The full range of co-morbidities and traumatic changes are discussed, but this study focuses on picking out juveniles where vitamin C and D deficiency co-occurred. Macroscopic and histological features of both vitamin C and D deficiency are considered along with the impact of co-occurrence on each feature. For example, bone proliferation is normally rapid following ingestion of even limited vitamin C, but this will not be the case where vitamin D deficiency is present. In many cases such approaches are unlikely to provide clear information unless used in combination with biochemical techniques currently being developed.

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