The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Stressing over a childhood stress indicator: Assessing the etiology and scoring of cribra orbitalia through the age distribution of porosity activity and degree


1Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, 2Department of Anthropology, Cornell University

April 17, 2020 , Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

Traditionally interpreted as anemia-induced marrow hypertrophy, cribra orbitalia (CO) has long been considered a childhood stress indicator useful for investigating the health status of ancient communities. Recent debates regarding whether orbital roof porosities could be manifestations of other metabolic diseases such as scurvy and osteoporosis bring to question the reliability of current scoring protocols for assessing the presence of diploic expansion. This study explores the distributions of porosity activity and degree scores across different age categories in a prehispanic population from highland Peru (n=184) to determine if data collected using the Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) scoring protocol conform to the expected distribution of age-conditioned marrow hypertrophy. The prevalence of active porosities in the left orbit is significantly higher among juveniles compared to adults (p < 0.05), with the most marked shift occurring from 26.1% in children to 8.7% in the adolescent/young adult group, consistent with the epidemiological model of anemia. However, pinpoint porosity is relatively evenly distributed across age categories, ranging from 37.0% in the adolescent/young adult group to 47.6% among infants and neonates. Combined with 38.9% of the pinpoint porosity cases (n=74) being noted in association with orbital vascularization, these data suggest that orbital porosities collectively coded as CO could be reflecting multiple conditions as well as normal developmental variants. In light of recent etiological debates and findings of inter-observer error in the scoring of orbital lesions, the results of this study further suggest that standard scoring methods have low construct validity for measuring the intended pathology.

This research was supported by a Cornell University Institute for the Social Sciences Small Grant to Velasco and the Melissa and Robert Lewin Award for Undergraduate Archaeological Fieldwork at Cornell University.

Slides/Poster (pdf)