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

Pretos Novos: in search for signs of adult scurvy in the slave trade to Brazil, 1769-1830. D.C. Cook, Indiana University’


Anthropology, Indiana University

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Adult scurvy produces distinct skeletal signs from those seen in infancy or early childhood. Its strong association with sea travel is a prominent feature of historical accounts. The rigors of the transatlantic slave trade to Brazil were associated with reported outbreaks of scurvy on board many ships. Some historians question these accounts because skin diseases may mimic scurvy and because the time spent in passage was short. Evidence for the provisioning of slave ships is limited,

There have been several experimental studies on adult scurvy in humans, A review shows that vitamin C free diets produce anemia, gingival bleeding and tooth loss within as little as 90 days. Bone loss, bone pain and subperiosteal hemorrhage are later consequences. Fascial and periosteal new bone formation should be expected only in healing scurvy. Adolescents might show more periosteal new bone formation reflecting bone growth.

Cemiterio Pretos Novos in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was a burial place for newly arrived slaves who survived the passage but died before being sold. Remains are limited to an accidental discovery during renovations in a residential area built over the cemetery. Teeth and jaws representing 34 persons were recovered. Most were adolescents or young adults, as is expected in newly enslaved Africans. Oral health was excellent. Periodontal pockets, excessive periodontal bone loss, tooth loss, and new bone formation attributable to scurvy were not observed. This surprising result is examined in the light of historical accounts of shipboard morbidity and mortality.

This research was supported by a Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (FAPERJ) grant to Ricardo Ventura Santos (E-26/102.935/2008).

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