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

Stress, social inequality, and growth retardation: Exploring the multidimensionality of stature variation in past populations


Department of Anthropology, The Ohio State University

Friday 2:15-2:30, Ballroom A Add to calendar

Variation in stature is commonly attributed to differential stress-levels during development. However, the osteological paradox indicates that overall tall stature in a population may be more indicative of high selective pressures during growth than of positive life conditions. This paper examines stature data in a broader biocultural context and draws parallels between bioarchaeological and living populations to explore the multidimensionality of stature variation in the past. Specifically, two research questions are addressed: (1) is tall stature associated with low or high stress (inferred from skeletal indicators) in past populations? and (2) what can we learn about stature variation by comparing living and past populations? Stature and skeletal stress indicators (cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, linear enamel hypoplasia) were estimated using standard methods in two medieval bioarchaeological populations: Giecz, Poland (n=66) and Trino Vercellese, Italy (n=52). Stature data and biocultural information were gathered for comparative living samples from South America. Results indicate significant (p<0.01) differences in stature between groups exposed to different levels of skeletal stress. However, the relationship between early stress and growth is confounded by several biocultural factors, including cultural buffering and socioeconomic status. Thus, interpretations of early life conditions based on the relationship between stature and stress should be advanced with caution. Additionally, comparisons between past and living populations indicate a striking difference in the prevalence of stunting (with ~50% stunting in the living populations and no stunting in skeletal samples). Different selective pressures, differential mortality, catch-up growth, and stressors of different nature and duration may explain this disparity.

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