Quick Tips – Common Questions: Why are some diseases more easily identified on skeletal remains than others?

This is a Quick Tips post providing a basic answer to a commonly asked question often faced within the field of archaeology and anthropology.

Some diseases are more easily to identify on skeletal remains due to leaving tell-tale signs in the bones preservation. An easy example of this is osteoporosis; this condition leaves the inners of bones a lot more porous which is easier to visually assess and compare to a ‘healthy’ individual’s skeletal remains.

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Some diseases are more easily to identify on skeletal remains due to leaving tell-tale signs in the bones preservation. An  example of this is osteoporosis; this condition leaves the inners of bones a lot more porous than normal bones.

A study by Hershkovitz & Rothschild (1997) highlighted how certain medical conditions, in their study sickle cell anaemia, affects the bone growth and development. Hershkovitz & Rothschild found that due to the iron deficiency from sickle cell anaemia caused porotic hyperostosis (symmetrical osteoporosis) on the parietal bone as well as others. They were able to visually diagnose this due to the characteristic ‘pores’ over the skull.

Another example of an easily identifiable disease is tuberculosis (TB), TB can cause devastating bone damage. A recent archaeological study by Lewis (2011) looked into a population who suffered from TB. Lewis visually analysed the skeletal remains of a juvenile population from Poundbury Camp, Dorset. The TB infection caused numerous ailments to the infected, such as fever, but it’s the skeletal damage which gave the indication that the person suffered.  Amongst the population there was a high instance of skeletons with necrosis and lytic lesions characterised by minimal bone formation.  Many of the juvenile’s vertebrae displayed new bone formations which could indicate the presence of a paravertebral abscess. Many of the metatarsals were also displaying evidence of new bone formation which they concluded could be indicative of tuberculous dactylitis. Osteomyelitis, infection of the bone, was also found on a few mandibles and visually diagnosed due to its characteristic small pores found in a localised area. It is this characterised skeletal damage, seen on numerous cases during known TB outbreaks, which cause more diseases to be easily identified by eye due to the skeletal anomalies.

There are problems when trying to differentiate certain diseases for example; TB with brucellosis (undulant fever). As they both produce spinal lesions it is necessary to observe the other characteristic skeletal damage (new bone formation and osteomyelitis) to correctly identify it as a TB infection. Another slight difference between TB and brucellosis is that the spinal lesions are more sclerotic and regular than those from a TB infection (Lewis, 2011).

These porous bones and unexpected bone formations are easily observed, as they are not what’s expected during the known skeletal development found in healthy persons. Problems arise with diseases that do no damage to the skeleton, but instead affect soft tissue and muscles. These illnesses are harder to identify as they decay over time leaving only trace elements in the surrounding soils which would then hold the key for disease identification.

References:

Hershkovitz, I. Rothschild, B. et al. 1997. Recognition of sickle cell anemia in skeletal remains of children. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Volume 104, Issue 2. 213-226.

Lewis, M. 2011. Tuberculosis in the non-adults from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset, England. International Journal of Paleopathology. Volume 1, Issue 1. 12-23.

To learn how archaeologists and anthropologists use teeth to age skeletal remains, read our Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Chronological Age of a Human Skeleton – Using Dentition to Age Subadults. Or to read more of our interesting Quick Tips, click here.

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Quick Tips – Common Questions: What can an anthropologist tell from the examination of teeth regarding either forensic identification of individuals or understanding past populations?

This is a Quick Tips post providing a basic answer to a commonly asked question often faced within the field of archaeology and anthropology.

An anthropologist can obtain a wide and varied collection of information from examining teeth. Information such as paleodiets and palaeoenvironments can be learnt from studying a population, or from studying an individual sample you can identify how old the person was at time of death or whether that person was pregnant/ill. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg on what you can learn from dentition.

Ondontology

An anthropologist can obtain a wide and varied collection of information from examining teeth, ranging from palaeodiets and palaeoenvironmental information to age of death.

From studying a large population dentition sample, a picture can be painted of their past diets, current diets and palaeoenvironments. Isotopes play a huge part in conducting research into palaeodiets and palaeoenvironments.

Isotopes are deposited into the teeth of an individual/population from food sources or environment. A tooth can provide isotopic information from the past 20yrs of the individual’s life. The enamel and dentine can be examined to analyse the isotopic values that will pinpoint an origin of a population or food sources. The carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions found within the enamel are used to reconstruct diet and the oxygen isotopes are used to determine the geographic origin of the food source. The carbon isotopes are absorbed from the diet of the animals that are sources and the oxygen isotopes from the water that the population consume. These isotopic values are vital in helping an anthropologist understand the local ecosystem a population exploited and whether a population migrated to numerous locations which caused changes in the available diet.

The cementum of a tooth can highlight important information about a person which can be used for forensic identification; this information could give an approximate age of death. An example of this application is seen in Kagerer and Grupe (2000) study where they obtained 80 freshly extracted teeth and investigated the incremental lines in acellular extrinsic fibre cementum. From studying the cementum, they were able to determine the age of the patient by comparing it to detailed queries of the patients life history. This study also identified patients who were pregnant. Kagerer and Grupe (2000) concluded that if there was a presence of hypo-mineralised incremental lines on the extracted tooth, the patient was pregnant. This is due to the pregnancies influence on calcium metabolism. A confliction with this is that hypo-mineralized lines can also appear when a skeletal trauma or renal illness was present.

By looking at the dentition of molars the age of the skeleton can be estimated. A recent study by Mesotten, et al. (2002) highlighted the application of forensic odontology. Mesotten, et al’s methodology consisted of examining 1175 orthopantomograms which belonged to patients who were of Caucasian origin and were aged between 16 and 22years. From their investigation Mesotten, et al. were able to conclude that from studying the molars, it was possible to age Caucasian individuals with a regression formula with a standard deviation of 1.52 or 1.56 years for males and females, respectively, if all four third molars were available. This could play a fundamental role in identifying a missing person by estimating the decease’s age and seeing if its estimate matches the individual.

Although the studies from Mesotten, et al (2002) and Kagerer and Grupe (2000) have been written about and applied to individual cases, their methodology and conclusions can be applied to a past population if a group of skeletons were found with preserved teeth. The individual’s age of death can be used as quantitative data, alongside other individuals from the same sample, to figure out a past population’s life expectancy.

References:

Kagerer, P. Grupe, G. 2000. Age-at-death diagnosis and determination of life-history parameters by incremental lines in human dental cementum as an identification aid. Forensic Science International. 118, 1. 75-82.

Mesotten, K. Gunst, K. Carbonez, A. Willems, G. 2002. Dental age estimation and third molars: a preliminary study. Forensic Science International. Volume 129, Issue 2, 110-115

To learn how archaeologists and anthropologists use teeth to age skeletal remains, read our Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Chronological Age of a Human Skeleton – Using Dentition to Age Subadults. Or to read more of our interesting Quick Tips, click here.