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

Temporal patterns of auditory exostosis prevalence in pre-Columbian Tennessee: Controlling for geography and subsistence


Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University

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Auditory exostoses (AE), boney growths in the external auditory canal, are consistently clinically assigned a prolonged cold-water exposure etiology. Although a bias in male prevalence in several archaeological contexts has suggested a sex-specific subsistence-related behavior, the pattern remains equivocal. If AE do reflect subsistence-related behaviors (e.g., fishing, diving), a multiple site assessment between contrasting subsistence strategies should affirm this, but only if the ecological contexts are identical. The prehistoric cultures of the western Tennessee River Valley within what is now the Kentucky Lake Reservoir include a large multiple site sample from the Late Archaic (2500-1000 BC) period which is characterized as an intensive hunter-gatherer economy focused on the exploitation of riverine resources. The immediate environs also yielded two large river-bank site samples of Mississippian period (AD 1100-1400) intensive agriculturalists. Auditory meati were macroscopically examined in adolescents and adults for all overgrowths. An exostosis was identified as a distinct nodule with a circumscribed boundary.

The results indicate that nodular AE are more prevalent in the Mississippian sample than the Archaic (21% versus 15%). Additionally, males have a higher frequency of exostoses in the Archaic sample (28% versus 13%) but are comparable to females in the Mississippian (25% versus 30%). These results contrast with previous studies of Mississippian samples from East Tennessee and North Carolina which parallel the Archaic sample in raw frequency and male prevalence. If cold water is indeed the primary cause of nodular AE, these results contraindicate a simple association of division of labor by subsistence strategy.

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