The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

A study of cribra orbitalia over time and space in the ancient Nile Valley


Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas

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Cribra orbitalia is one of the most common skeletal lesions noted in ancient human skeletal remains excavated from the Nile Valley. Although its etiology remains under debate, recent research suggests that cribra orbitalia is caused primarily by hemolytic anemia. Research indicates that hemolytic anemia caused by malaria results in increased cribra orbitalia. Further, several independent researchers, using aDNA sequencing of ancient Egyptian mummies, found direct evidence of Plasmodium falciparum malaria. This direct evidence verifies the presence of malaria in antiquity, but the prevalence and spread of the disease remains unknown. As some models have pointed to the Nile Valley as the pathway of malaria from Africa to Europe within the time frame of Dynastic Egypt, variability in levels of cribra orbitalia should provide a way to track the spread of this disease. This study surveyed cribra orbitalia frequencies at 29 ancient Nile Valley sites, representing 4,760 individuals ranging from prehistoric to Christian periods (4400 BC – 1500 AD) and situated between upper Nubia and the Nile delta. Results showed generally high cribra orbitalia rates between 10.8% and 78.7% of the total population affected, with an overall mean of 42.8%. Over time and geographical location, the data showed no significant correlation, suggesting that high levels of hemolytic anemia affected individuals in the Nile Valley equally from pre-dynastic to Christian periods. These findings, together with the aDNA evidence, support the hypothesis that malaria was already widespread and endemic in the Nile Valley long before the beginnings of Dynastic Egypt.

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