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

“Short people got no reason to live”: Long bone length and selective mortality of children in medieval Denmark


1Sociology and Anthropology Department, George Mason University, 2Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research, George Mason University

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Children often make up half of the individuals found in pre-industrial cemeteries. Their ages, identified by dental development and by long bone length, are used to build demographic models for the populations. Given selective mortality among children, however, the long bone growth of dead children may lag behind that of those who survive to adulthood, underestimating their ages and skewing the demographic estimates. In this study, we hypothesize that the long bone lengths (femur, tibia, radius, ulna, and humerus) of the children found in Tirup cemetery will be shorter than expected given their dental development. Tirup, a medieval Danish cemetery, contained 464 graves with preserved human remains. Of those, 138 were adults having at least one measurable long bone with fused epiphyses, and 78 were children with at least one measureable diaphysis and preserved dentition. We use the length of the Tirup adult long bones, and known models of bone growth, to construct expected growth curves for each bone. Plotted dental age versus observed diaphyseal lengths are compared to the growth curves. Preliminary work finds that the children’s limbs are short for age, leading to the conclusion that the children found in the cemetery were not a representative sample of the total child population at each age. These findings might be applicable to other collections with large proportions of children, and should caution osteologists about making direct inferences about the living children from the deceased.

This work was supported by a Fulbright Grant and a Grant from Scandinavian American Foundation.

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