A study of early Marianas Islanders, the skeletons under their skins

29 Jun 2010

It is only in the last decade that much archaeological research has been carried out in Micronesia and that studies of prehistoric human remains have emerged in any quantity. In this study human skeletal material from eight sites in the Marianas Islands is analysed with particular reference to the health of the individuals. Research on the health of the inhabitants of a site can provide an archaeologist with direct information on how well these people adapted to their environment. The remains from seven of these sites had been previously analysed but it is felt that there is still much to be gained by a re-analysis. Several variables are employed in the investigation of the health of these people. They include sex, age at death, stature, pregnancy markings, Harris lines, cortical thickness and Nordin's score, as well as an examination of degeneration, pathology and any evidence of frequently performed activities. The dentitions are analysed for tooth wear, alveolar resorption, caries, enamel hypoplasia, staining, calculus and any other dental pathology. Evidence is sought of cultural modification of teeth or other parts of the body. It is felt that the inclusion of this many variables is the best research strategy for these fragmentary and sometimes conmingled remains. A discussion of previous physical anthropological research on the health of Marianas islanders is included in this thesis. Within the present analysis, information from this previous research is incorporated to provide a synthesis which in turn will hopefully provide direction for further research. It was found that these Marianas islanders generally enjoyed good health. Those who survived to adulthood died between 20 and 40 years of age and achieved a relatively tall stature. Their bone cortex was comparable to modern well fed populations. Menarche may not have begun until 17-18 years with a maximum of three or four children being born to each woman by her thirties.A few individuals had episodes of poor health during their childhood. A physical existence for both sexes resulted in a slight degree of degenerative change by the fourth decade of life (30-40 years). A squatting position was consistently adopted, and a strong downward motion of the arms was frequently performed. Evidence of cribra orbitalia possibly due to to a childhood episode of iron deficiency anaemia was discovered in one individual. There were only a few instances of trauma. Individuals at three sites had bony evidence of a treponemal infection, probably yaws. Their dental health as indicated by slight tooth wear, moderate alveolar resorption, the incidence of caries, calculus deposits and stained teeth was a result of a soft carbohydrate diet, poor oral hygiene and habitual betel nut chewing. Abcesses and antemortem tooth loss did not develop until their thirties. Staining, incising and filing of teeth was found at several sites and may have occurred upon bethrothal, as a rite of passage or as a sign of status. The possibility that they were incidental to some other practices is also discussed. The skull of one individual was artificially flattened in the occipital region and was the only other possible example of cultural modification among these people. The overall conclusion that the health of these Marianas islanders was good infers that they had adapted well to a favourable environment. The re-analysis of these people has led to the discovery of new aspects of their health and also points to problems for future research thus successfully fulfilling its objectives despite the limitations of the material. Another important point which this study makes is that analysis and re-analysis of skeletal material of poor condition can establish useful new insights to the health of a population. In the Pacific where skeletal remains are frequently fragmentary it is hoped that this point will be kept in mind.

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