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

Vertebral joint disease and trauma with horse riding among ancient Mongolian pastoralists


Department of Anthropology, Western Michigan University

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The adoption of nomadic pastoralism introduced new physiological stresses to the human spine. Horses can move at fast speeds and riders must contend with unpredictable behaviors of their horse. Spinal injuries have been documented in clinical studies of modern recreational equestrians and a few studies of archaeological collections of horse riders. These samples, while useful for comparative basis, may not be representative of injuries suffered by ancient pastoralists, where whole communities traveled by horse as part of their subsistence activity.

A study of archaeological samples of Mongolian pastoralists offers insight into the patterns of vertebral joint disease and trauma seen among horse riding cultures. Vertebral data from 119 individuals (20 subadults and 99 adults, with 46 males and 53 females) derive from three periods: Bronze Age (2500-500BC) when pastoralism emerged; the Xiongnu Empire (3rd c. BC-2nd c. AD), whose mounted warriors threatened neighboring polities; and the later Mongol Empire (13th-14th c. AD). Observations of osteophytosis, apophyseal joint disease, Schmorl’s nodes, and spondylolysis were scored and analyzed with Fisher’s exact test. Among the adult samples, intragroup comparisons by time period show no significant differences between male and female rates of trauma and joint disease except in apophyseal joint disease during the Bronze Age (males 44%, females 22%, p=0.041). Intergroup comparisons of total sample frequencies across time periods show the highest rate of spondylolysis in the Bronze Age sample (16%), which also has a significantly lower rate (24%) of Schmorl’s nodes compared to Xiongnu (52%, p=0.040) and Mongol (52%, p=0.055) samples.

This study was supported by funds from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists Professional Development Grant and the Faculty Research and Creative Arts Award from Western Michigan University.

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