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


Human health and hydrocarbon exposure along the prehistoric West Coast

SEBASTIAN K.T.S. WÄRMLÄNDER1, SABRINA B. SHOLTS2, KEVIN SMITH3, RENÉ VELLANOWETH3, JON M. ERLANDSON4 and ROGER WESTERLUND1.

1Division of Biophysics, Stockholm University, 2Dept of Intergative Biology, Berkeley, 3Dept of Anthropology, Cal State, 4Dept of Anthropology, University of Oregon, 5Dept of Organic Chemistry, Stockholm University

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Physical anthropological research on prehistoric human populations of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands of California has documented an overall health decline over many thousands of years, indicated by extensive skeletal evidence of increases in stress and disease. Although this decline may be partly related to factors of climatic instability, population growth, and ecological change, we have recently suggested that increased exposure to toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may have been an additional factor. Concurrent with decreasing trends in stature and head size - documented health effects of fetal PAH exposure - we have previously found evidence of an increasing trend in cultural usage of PAH-rich bitumen from natural petroleum seep s in the area. To estimate the amount of PAH exposure and bioaccumulation experienced by local populations, we here used gas-chromatography/mass-spectrometry (GC/MS) to measure PAH contents in organic material from the Channel Islands and in raw bitumen from natural seeps. To investigate the potential levels of PAH exposure through drinking water, we measured PAH contents in water stored in modern replicas of bitumen-lined water-bottles, which were used in the Santa Barbara Channel region from the Middle to Late Holocene. The results allowed us to assess the potential significance of different PAHs pathways and quantify levels of exposure for the human populations in the region, to add time depth to studies of potential PAH exposures caused by traditional cultural practices in modern tribal communities, and to illustrate the need for further investigations of environmental chemical toxicity in the ancient world.

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