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

Transitions in mortality and documented causes of death: North Orkney (1855-1955)


1Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, 2Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University, 3Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina

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While investigations into historical mortality patterns are important for anthropological and historical demography, they are plagued by several potential problems. Mortality is frequently the result of multiple competing causes, however vital records typically list only one cause. Many important causes go unnoticed, sometimes because they had not yet been identified by medical science among other reasons. Furthermore, the names of medical conditions have changed over time. For example, what we now call tuberculosis has also been known as phthisis and consumption. Here we investigate patterns in listed causes of death over the span of a century in North Orkney, Scotland. While our population appears to follow the general epidemiological transition model, with noninfectious causes (e.g. cardiovascular disease and cancer) replacing infectious disease over time, the decrease in infectious disease coincides with a decrease in missing and unknown causes of death in the vital records. Some of the most distinct patterns for single causative agents appear in tuberculosis deaths. These dynamics may be related to the absence or presence of medical personnel and and/or to the discovery of the causative agent of tuberculosis in 1882. While our study has empirical significance in describing mortality changes in a historical population, it also has methodological relevance for other scientists who are interested in historical demography. Specifically, we show that transitions in mortality patterns also coincide with increased knowledge about diseases and transitions in nomenclature. These complex dynamics warrant further study and should be taken into consideration in historical studies of mortality.

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