Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard
Friday 7, Forum Suite
How is it possible to infer health from archaeological populations when only their bones remain? This much-debated osteological conundrum is well illustrated by scurvy. The disease must have been a common problem for past populations over-wintering on stored produce and particularly amongst the poor, yet the true scale of the problem is difficult to estimate. Despite extensive historical documentation of this metabolic disease, there are several issues that confound identification of scurvy in archaeological bones. In addition sub-clinical cases, where a scorbutic episode was not sufficiently severe for the sufferer to develop visible boney changes, simply go undetected in the archaeological record.
Scurvy arises when levels of dietary vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are low and if left untreated results in haemorrhaging of weakened connective tissue. Vitamin C is essential for the hydroxylation of the amino acids lysine and proline, key structural components of collagen, itself a chief component of soft tissues and bone.
This paper presents a novel means of detecting scurvy, based upon the identification of certain bone collagen peptides, which contain hydroxyproline sites that are susceptible to deficiencies in vitamin C and thus represent a ‘biomarker’ for scurvy. The biomarker utilizes new advances in protein mass spectrometry and was developed using bone collagen from guinea pigs fed on low vitamin C diets and a series of well-documented archaeological cases of scurvy in humans.
Much of this research was conducted whilst the author was a bioarchaeology post-doctoral research fellow funded by the Wellcome trust