Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the nineteenth-century Stirrup Court Cemetery collection from London, Ontario

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Abstract
This study employs non-destructive methods to investigate patterns of long bone bilateral asymmetry in a skeletal sample from the nineteenth-century peri-urban Stirrup Court Cemetery collection from London, Ontario, Canada. The St. Thomas Cemetery skeletal sample from urban Belleville, Ontario provides additional data for comparison. While one objective of the study is to determine the etiologies of any asymmetries and to identify patterns in what measurements on which bones displayed the most asymmetry, another objective is to test the hypothesis that limbs indicating asymmetry due to pathology or trauma in one element would show bilateral asymmetries elsewhere in the same bone and limb, due to either atrophy alone or to additional compensatory hypertrophy. Overall, the Stirrup Court data shows a general pattern of crossed symmetry, and when compared with the Belleville data the pattern of high and low absolute asymmetries is consistent. The results reveal a lack of asymmetry in elements with obvious long-term damage, which may indicate that caution is required in making determinations about lived impairment/disability in such cases. The sexual dimorphism in asymmetry in both samples, with males displaying more asymmetry in humeral minimum shaft circumference in the Stirrup Court sample, likely reflects the division of labor and behavior patterns in these populations. Finally, this study suggests that the effects of osteoarthritis may mask non-age-related impairment/disability, and that the skeletal record of impairment/disability is likely affected by differential preservation, with consequences for the emerging field of the archeology of disability.
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Volume 21, July 2009: 1-15
Author correspondence should be directed to battleht@mcmaster.ca (Department of Anthropology,
McMaster University, CNH Room 524, 1280 Main St. West, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4L9)
Nexus is an annual graduate student publication of the McMaster University Department of
Anthropology, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/nexus
Long bone bilateral asymmetry
in the nineteenth-century Stirrup Court Cemetery collection
from London, Ontario
Heather T. Battles
McMaster University, Department of Anthropology
This study employs non-destructive methods to investigate patterns of long bone bilateral asymmetry in
a skeletal sample from the nineteenth-century peri-urban Stirrup Court Cemetery collection from
London, Ontario, Canada. The St. Thomas Cemetery skeletal sample from urban Belleville, Ontario
provides additional data for comparison. While one objective of the study is to determine the etiologies of
any asymmetries and to identify patterns in what measurements on which bones displayed the most
asymmetry, another objective is to test the hypothesis that limbs indicating asymmetry due to pathology
or trauma in one element would show bilateral asymmetries elsewhere in the same bone and limb, due
to either atrophy alone or to additional compensatory hypertrophy. Overall, the Stirrup Court data
shows a general pattern of crossed symmetry, and when compared with the Belleville data the pattern
of high and low absolute asymmetries is consistent. The results reveal a lack of asymmetry in elements
with obvious long-term damage, which may indicate that caution is required in making
determinations about lived impairment/disability in such cases. The sexual dimorphism in asymmetry
in both samples, with males displaying more asymmetry in humeral minimum shaft circumference in
the Stirrup Court sample, likely reflects the division of labor and behavior patterns in these
populations. Finally, this study suggests that the effects of osteoarthritis may mask non-age-related
impairment/disability, and that the skeletal record of impairment/disability is likely affected by
differential preservation, with consequences for the emerging field of the archeology of disability.
Introduction
he purpose of this study was two-fold.
First, I wanted to investigate the patterns
of bilateral long bone asymmetry in this
peri-urban skeletal sample from the nineteenth
century Stirrup Court Cemetery near London,
Ontario, Canada and to compare these with a
similar but larger skeletal sample from Belleville,
Ontario and to other studies of asymmetry in
the published literature. Specific questions
included what the etiologies of the asymmetries
were (such as atrophy or hypertrophy due to
trauma, pathology, or activity patterns) and
what measurements on which bones displayed
the most asymmetry.
The second purpose was to examine cases
of possible impairment/disability in the sample,
Burial 21 in particular, and identify the
associated asymmetries.
1
The starting
hypothesis was that limbs indicating asymmetry
due to pathology or trauma in one element
would show bilateral asymmetries elsewhere in
the same bone and limb, due to either atrophy
alone or to additional compensatory
hypertrophy.
In both cases, the methods of analysis were
the non-destructive measurements of external
dimensions of the long bones. This methodology
was used because of the basic practical
limitations of this study and because it provides
1
The term ‘impairment’ in this paper generally
implies a purely physical condition, while ‘disability’
encompasses both physical impairments and
limitations imposed by societal or environmental
structure as a result of the impairments.
T
H. T. Battles
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
2
the greatest opportunity for comparison between
samples, as skeletal analyses of many populations
may be limited to simpler, non-destructive
methods due to issues such as cost or political
concerns. While many studies of the effects of
activity and disuse on the skeleton have utilized
destructive techniques such as
histomorphometric analysis (Stout 1982) and
chemical and stable isotope analysis (Whedon
1984; Katzenberg & Lovell 1999), Roberts
(2002, 9) states that she believes non-
destructive approaches will remain the
dominant methods in paleopathology for the
foreseeable future.
Background literature on asymmetry
Bone is a plastic and adaptive tissue,
responding to changes in mechanical strain
through the process of remodeling. New bone is
deposited where there is an increase in strain,
and bone is removed from areas affected by
reduced activity or immobilization. This process
has been demonstrated in studies of forms of
exercise such racquet sports in terms of
hypertrophy (i.e. Jones et al. 1977; Ruff et al.
1994; Bass et al. 2002) and of disuse in terms of
atrophy (i.e. Biewener & Bertram 1994).
However, nutrition, hormones, and genetics also
play roles, and these systemic factors may alter
the functional adaptive processes of bone
(Lanyon & Skerry 2001, cited in Ruff et al.
2006).
Physical anthropologists and others have
investigated bilateral asymmetry in long bones
from a number of perspectives, from primate
studies to shed light on evolution to variation
among modern humans. Skeletal biology
research into the evolution of handedness and
laterality has extended across the disciplines
(i.e. Morbeck et al. 1994 Steele 2004;
Sarringhaus et al. 2005; Blackburn & Knüsel
2006). One recent study of the long bones in a
collection of medieval skeletons found that the
most bilaterally asymmetrical bone was the
humerus, resulting from hand preference, while
in terms of crossed symmetry the tibia on the
opposite side of the body from the dominant arm
was stronger and the femur was strongest on the
left side regardless of hand preference (Čuk et al.
2001).
Studies of robusticity in the genus Homo
(Ruff et al. 1993; Trinkaus et al. 1994; Ruff et al.
1994) found that modern human groups are less
robust in the diaphyses but not in articular
elements, indicating a mechanical rather than
genetic cause for the trend. Auerbach & Ruff’s
(2006) study of bilateral asymmetry across
modern human groups found patterns of crossed
symmetry, sexual dimorphism of asymmetry,
and decreased directionality and magnitude of
asymmetry as well as decreased sexual
dimorphism in more recent populations
indicating changing labor patterns.
There have also been a number of studies
on biomechanical responses to trauma (i.e.
Churchill & Formicola 1997; Nystrom &
Buikstra 2005) and pathology such as paralysis
resulting from poliomyelitis infection in humans
(Winkler & Gro!schmidt 1988) and
chimpanzees (Morbeck et al. 1991). Studies of
disuse atrophy resulting from pathology (i.e.
Stout 1982), bed rest, and space flight (i.e.
Whedon 1984) have shown that it may take
many months for paralysis and immobilization to
result in visible osteoporotic changes and that
limbs in which partial use is retained may not
show statistically significant asymmetries.
Knüsel (2000) outlines how diaphyseal
diameters are better for examining activity-
associated changes because they are subject to
activity-related growth for a longer period of
time than are long bone lengths or articular
dimensions. Knüsel’s (2000) results imply that
asymmetries in articular dimensions in adults
are the result of activity differences prior to
maturity. In terms of disability, this conclusion
would mean that asymmetries in diaphyseal and
articular dimensions would indicate impairment
of the limbs during childhood, while
impairments acquired during adulthood would
have a greater effect on the diaphyses (Knüsel
2000). Knüsel and colleagues (1992; 2000)
provide an example of a medieval priest with a
slipped proximal femoral epiphysis acquired
prior to physiological maturity whose distal
femoral condyles show asymmetries of the
Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the Stirrup Court Collection
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
3
articular surfaces. This individual also displayed
hypertrophies indicating the use of a crutch
(Knüsel et al. 1992).
Skeletal evidence of impairment and
disability may provide important information
towards a number of larger theoretical and
practical issues in human evolutionary biology
and paleopathology. These issues include the
effects of provisioning and healthcare altruism
towards people with impairments on fitness and
mortality rates (Sugiyama 2004), and questions
of what constitutes evidence of care (Lebel et al.
2001; DeGusta 2002) or compassion
(Dettwyler 1991; Hawkey 1998). Although the
archeology of disability has only recently
emerged as a distinct field of study, according to
Roberts (2000, 46, 57) archeologists and
bioarcheologists should be “inherently
interested” in disability because it exists in all
populations and cultures and how disability is
perceived and treated reflects the human
environment in which it is found.
Materials and methods
The Stirrup Court Cemetery near London,
Ontario was first excavated in 1982, with the
collection since kept at the University of
Western Ontario. Parish (2000) describes the
sample as representing a peri-urban population,
with family farms located within a short
traveling distance of the city. (Peri-urban”
refers to a place on the outskirts of an urban
area, beyond the suburbs.) For comparison, the
St. Thomas Cemetery sample from Belleville,
Ontario, excavated in 1989, is described as
being mainly urban (Parish 2000). Both are
mid-nineteenth century middle class
populations of British ancestry (Parish 2000).
The advantage of using the Belleville data for
comparison to Stirrup Court, besides the
similarities stated above, is that the former is a
much larger sample, with 295 adults complete
enough for study out of 604 individuals total
(Saunders et al. 1995, cited in Parish 2000),
although data for certain measures used for
comparison was not available for all individuals,
reducing the sample size for each comparative
analysis slightly, down to around 250
individuals, depending on the particular
measurements.
In the Stirrup Court collection, data was
collected from the 13 adult skeletons described
as nearly-complete by Parish (2000), 8 of which
have been identified by Parish with specific
individuals or, in the cases of Burials 19 and 20,
as part of one family. A total of 33 different
measurements were taken on each side, 30
adapted from Buikstra & Ubelaker (1994) and 3
added: minimum shaft circumferences of the
humerus, radius, and fibula. Some
measurements on some individuals were
unobtainable due to missing bones or damage to
certain elements. For instance, at the lesser
extreme Burial 5 provided only complete tibial
and fibular and partial humeral measurements.
Femur lengths were unavailable for 5
individuals (Burials 5, 11, 18, 19, and 21) due
to previous cross-sectioning. A Paleo-Tech
Field Osteometric Board was used to determine
lengths, spreading calipers for physiological
lengths, Mitutoyo digital sliding calipers for
widths, breadths, and diameters, and a soft
measuring tape for circumferences.
Measurements were taken to the nearest
millimeter (mm), taking the median of 3
measurement attempts. Data collection was
conducted by a single investigator over the
course of 3 days, with Burial 21, which was
measured first on the first day, being measured a
second time at the end of the third day, with
the second attempt used for the calculations,
according to the assumption that measurement
technique would have improved with
experience. Intra-observer error was calculated
for Burial 21 only (for the first of the two
attempts), for 4 reasons: first, because it is the
burial which receives individual attention in this
paper; second, because of time constraints;
third, because the error rate in any one burial of
sample of 13 is either not expected to differ
significantly from any of the others, or will be
slightly higher; and finally, because it is one of
the most complete skeletons in the sample with
31 out of the 33 measurements available. Intra-
observer error was calculated by subtracting
each of the 3 measurements in every category (ie
humeral maximum length in left limb) from
H. T. Battles
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
4
each other, with the mean for each side
calculated simultaneously: (((L3-L1)+(L2-
L1)+(L3-L2))/3). The average error (in mm) for
the right and left sides was then calculated.
For each measurement on each individual,
4 calculations were made: 1) directional
asymmetry (DA) [(r-l)/((r+l)/2)x100] and 2)
absolute asymmetry (AA) [|(r-
l)|/((r+l)/2)x100], after Mays et al. (1999) and
Mays (2002) SDA (Standardized Directional
Asymmetry) and STA (Standardized Total
Asymmetry), and 3) directional difference (DD)
[(r-l)] and 4) random difference (RD) [|(r-l)|].
For each of the 33 measurements, the
minimum-maximum range, mean, median, and
standard deviation were calculated for the
sample. Additionally, individuals were roughly
ranked according to the number of
measurements in which the individual held the
maximum RD.
For the Belleville sample, DA, AA, DD,
and RD were calculated in each individual for
11 measurements for comparison to the
equivalent in Stirrup Court. Minimum-
maximum ranges, mean, median, and standard
deviation were also calculated for the sample for
each measurement, and these were compared to
the statistics from Stirrup Court. DA and AA
only were also calculated for humeral minimum
shaft circumference at a later stage for sexual
dimorphism comparison purposes. On this
measure, the Belleville sample consisted of 26
males and 16 females (those individuals for
whom sex was known and which provided
measurements on both the right and left
humeral shafts).
Results
Intra-observer error in Burial 21
The average mean error of right and left sides in
Burial 21 (first attempt) ranged from 0.00mm
to 0.83mm, while the maximum mean error on
either side was 2.00mm on the left humeral
minimum shaft circumference. The mean of the
average mean error for all 31 measurements was
0.05mm with a standard deviation of +/-
0.31mm, with the average mean error of the left
side being slightly higher at 0.09mm with a
standard deviation of 0.56mm compared to an
average mean error on the right side of 0.02mm
with a standard deviation of 0.31mm.
Stirrup Court
When the Stirrup Court burials were
ranked for their asymmetry scores, excluding
Burial 5 due to its high percentage of missing
elements (Table 1), 5 individuals tied for
highest asymmetry scores and one individual
ranked lowest. The 5 individuals at the high end
were those showing the most trauma and
pathology in the long bones with 4 out of the 5
belonging to one family (Table 2); the individual
with the lowest score was described by Parish
(2000) as robust and active with well-healed
fractures.
Table 1. Stirrup Court asymmetry scores and rankings, sex according to Parish (2000)
Table 2. Stirrup Court burials with highest asymmetry scores with observations from Parish (2000)
Burial
B3
B6
B7
B10
B11
B14
B17
B18
B19
B20
B21
Sex
F
M
F
M
M
M
M
F
M
M
M
Score by random difference
3
2
4
2
1
3
4
5
5
5
5
Burial
Observations
Burial 4
Elderly and osteoarthritic
Burial 18
Unhealed fracture of femur with bone loss
Burial 19
Fractured femur; old fracture on ulna; osteoarthritic
Burial 20
Young with little pathology; violent death; son of B18 and B19
Burial 21
Necrosis of right hip joint; atrophy of right femur; scoliokyphosis; humeri supinated; son of B18
and B19
Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the Stirrup Court Collection
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
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Burial
Asymmetry pattern
Highest/lowest asymmetries
Observations (Parish 2000)
3
R-dominant
Highest on femoral A-P
subtroch. diameter
Cancerous lesions
4
R-dominant by length; L-dominant in
LL diameter (probable)
Elderly, osteoarthritic
5
Fairly even mix (only tibia, fibula, and
partial humerus)
Osteoarthritic
6
Even or R-dominant UL; L-dominant
tibiae; possible crossed symmetry
Highest in ulnar M-L
diameter
Osteoarthritic; normal and healthy
7
R-dominant UL; L-dominant LL;
crossed symmetry
Robust with systemic arrested
growth
10
R-dominant UL; L-dominant LL
(femora); x-symmetry
11
R-dominant (tentative due to missing
measurements)
Robust; well-healed fractures (R
femur)
14
R-dominant UL; L-dominant LL; x-
symmetry
Low overall
Partial spina bifida; possible
herniated disk; periostosis
17
R-dominant
Fairly low overall
All bones porous and light; severe
lesions on feet and spine
18
R-dominant UL (missing femur
lengths and fibulae make x-symmetry
difficult to assess)
Highest on humeral
length; tied highest on
ulnar length; high in
prox. and distal tibial
epiphyseal breadths
Unhealed fracture of femur
resulting in bone loss
19
Mixed results in UL (including high
L-bias in radii); L-dominant LL
Fractured right femur; old fracture
of L ulna
20
R-dominant UL; consistent L-
dominance in LL; x- symmetry
Highest in tibial lengths
Violent death
21
Mixed
2nd-highest on humeral
length; very high L-
dominance in max
femoral head diameter;
very high on femoral M-
L diameter, w/ none on
A-P diameter
Necrosis of R hip joint with
atrophy of R proximal femur;
scoliokyphosis; humeri supinated
Table 3. Description of asymmetry patterns in the Stirrup Court burials with the most relevant observations by
Parish (2000). R=right, L=left, UL=upper limbs, LL=lower limbs, x-symmetry= crossed symmetry.
Overall, the Stirrup Court data showed a
general pattern of crossed symmetry (right-bias
in the upper limbs and left-bias in the lower
limbs). Table 3 describes and summarizes the
patterns of asymmetry for each burial, with the
most relevant paleopathological and biographical
observations by Parish (2000) included.
To answer the question of what
measurements on which bones displayed the
most asymmetry in this sample, both mean and
median absolute asymmetries were used. They
were similar, with the same 5 measurements
above 5% on both mean and median (Fig. 1; Fig
2). However, there was a sixth measurement
with the highest AA by mean that was not
above 5% by median, which was the medial-
lateral subtrochanteric diameter of the femur
(Fig. 2). In terms of sexual dimorphism in the
sample, the absolute asymmetries in humeral
minimum shaft circumference were compared
for all 13 individuals (9 males, 4 females), with
the males showing higher asymmetries, though
these are mainly concentrated in two individuals
(Fig. 3).
H. T. Battles
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
6
Of particular interest, Burial 21 showed
high asymmetry in femoral head diameter and
medial-lateral subtrochanteric diameter (Figs. 4
and 5), due to necrosis of the right hip joint, but
almost no asymmetry in the anterior-posterior
subtrochanteric diameter (Fig. 6).
Stirrup Court vs. Belleville
When the statistics from Stirrup Court
were compared with Belleville’s, a similar
pattern became apparent. When graphed by
median absolute asymmetries to reduce the
impact of the highly asymmetrical individual
measurements such as on Burial 21’s proximal
femur, generally the Belleville asymmetries were
high for the same measurements on which
Stirrup Court was high, and low for the ones on
which Stirrup Court was low (Fig 7). The same
graph by mean is provided for comparison (Fig.
8). By median, the femoral proximal and
midshaft anterior-posterior asymmetries are
higher in Stirrup Court than in Belleville, and
the femoral midshaft medial-lateral absolute
asymmetry is higher in Belleville than in Stirrup
Court.
A comparison of sexual dimorphism of
asymmetry in humeral minimum shaft
circumference between Stirrup Court and
Belleville showed lower dimorphism in Stirrup
Court with males slightly more asymmetrical
than females, while in the Belleville sample the
females were slightly more asymmetrical (Table
4).
Stirrup Court Asymmetry
Tib Max Dist Epi Brdth
Tib Max Prox Epi Brdth
Tib Length
Fem Midsh Circ
Fem M-L Midsh Diam
Fem A-P Midsh Diam
Fem M-L Subtroch
Fem A-P Subtroch
Fem Max Diam of Head
Fem Bicond Length
Fem Epi Brdth
Fem Max Length
Ulna Min Circ
Ulna Phys Length
Ulna M-L Diam
Ulna A-P Diam
Ulna Max Length
Rad Min Shaft Circ
Rad M-L Midsh
Rad A-P at Midsh
Rad Max Length
Hum Min Shaft Circ
Hum Min Diam Midsh
Hum Max Diam Midsh
Hum Vert Diam Head
Hum Epi Brdth
Hum Max Length
Tib Max Diam Nut Fora
Tib M-L Diam Nut Fora
Tib Circ Nut Fora
Fib Max Length
Fib Max Diam Midsh
Fib Min Shaft Circ
0.00% 1.00% 2.00% 3.00% 4.00% 5.00% 6.00% 7.00% 8.00% 9.00% 10.00%
Measurement
Mean AA
Figure 1. Stirrup Court: mean asymmetries in the sample by measurement.
Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the Stirrup Court Collection
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
7
Stirrup Court Asymmetry
Hum Max Length
Hum Epi Brdth
Hum Vert Diam Head
Hum Max Diam Midsh
Hum Min Diam Midsh
Hum Min Circ
Rad Max Length
Rad A-P Midsh
Rad M-L Midsh
Rad Min Shaft Circ
Ulna Max Length
Ulna A-P Diam
Ulna M-L Diam
Ulna Phys Length
Ulna Min Circ
Fem Max Length
Fem Bicond Length
Fem Epi Brdth
Fem Max Diam of Head
Fem A-P Subtroch
Fem M-L Subtroch
Fem Midsh A-P Diam
Fem M-L Midsh Diam
Fem Midsh Circ
Tib Length
Tib Max Prox Epi Brdth
Tib Max Dist Epi Brdth
Tib Max Diam Nut Fora
Tib M-L Diam Nut Fora
Fib Min Shaft Circ
Fib Max Diam Midsh
Fib Max Length
Tib Circ Nut Fora
0.00% 1.00% 2.00% 3.00% 4.00% 5.00% 6.00% 7.00% 8.00%
Measurement
Median AA
Figure 2. Stirrup Court: median asymmetries in the sample by measurement
Sexual Dimorphism in Humeral Minimum Shaft Circumference
0.00% 2.00% 4.00% 6.00% 8.00% 10.00% 12.00% 14.00% 16.00%
B3 F AA
B7 F AA
B4 M AA
B10 M AA
B14 M AA
B19 M AA
B21 M AA
Measurement
Absolute Asymmetry (STA)
Figure 3. Sexual dimorphism in humeral minimum shaft circumference in Stirrup Court sample.
H. T. Battles
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
8
Figure 4. Anterior view of proximal femora of Burial 21, showing asymmetries in the femoral head and medial-
lateral subtrochanteric diameter.
Figure 5. Posterior view of proximal femora of Burial 21, showing asymmetries in the femoral head and medial-
lateral subtrochanteric diameter.
Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the Stirrup Court Collection
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Burial 21
Femur A-P Subtroch.
Femur Max Head
Diameter
Femur
M-L Subtroch.
0.00% 10.00% 20.00% 30.00% 40.00% 50.00% 60.00%
Measurement
% Absolute Asymmetry [(r-l)/((r+l)/2)x100]
Figure 6. Burial 21 absolute asymmetries.
Stirrup Court and Belleville Median Absolute Asymmetry
0.00 1.00 2.00 3.00 4.00 5.00 6.00
Femur Length
Femur Prox A-P
Femur Prox M-L
Femur Midshaft A-P
Femur Midshaft M-L
Femur Max Head Diameter
Femur Epi Breadth
Tibia Length
Fibula Length
Humerus Length
Radius Length
Measurement
% Absolute Asymmetry [l(r-l)l/((r+l)/2)x100]
Belleville
Stirrup Court
Figure 7. Stirrup Court and Belleville median absolute asymmetries compared.
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Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
10
Stirrup Court and Belleville Mean Absolute Asymmetry
0.00 2.00 4.00 6.00 8.00 10.00
Femur Length
Femur Prox M-L
Femur Midshaft M-L
Femur Epi Breadth
Fibula Length
Radius Length
Measurement
% Absolute Asymmetry [l(r-l)l/((r+l)/2)x100]
Belleville
Stirrup Court
Figure 8. Stirrup Court and Belleville mean absolute asymmetries compared.
Stirrup Court (M) n=9
Stirrup Court (F) n=4
Belleville (M) n=26
Belleville (F) n=16
Min AA
0.00%
0.00%
1.30%
0.00%
Max AA
14.60%
4.80%
21.9%
28.10%
Mean AA
3.53%
1.96%
9.99%
11.16%
Median AA
2.50%
1.52%
8.51%
10.36%
Std. Dev. AA
4.49%
2.03%
6.64%
8.81%
Table 4. Stirrup Court and Belleville sexual dimorphism on humeral minimum shaft circumference absolute
asymmetry (AA). M=male, F=female.
Discussion and conclusions
Methods
The most difficult measure to take was the
minimum circumference of the fibula. In the
future, the use of string to measure
circumferences of less than 50mm would be
advised, and perhaps for all circumferences in
the sample for the sake of consistency and
comparability.
Burial 21
This individual was identified by Parish
(2000, 113, 150) as John Robotham, aged 42-
47 years, and described as suffering from a
“highly debilitating neuromuscular disorder
likely genetic in origin. In their analyses of the
femora of Peg Leg Brown”, Lazenby & Pfeiffer
(1993) found that their results were consistent
with the model of femoral loading proposed by
Ruff & Hayes (1983), in which the proximal
femoral diaphysis experiences maximum medial-
lateral loading and minimum anterior-posterior
bending moments, with these being equal at
midshaft. Burial 21s femoral measurements are
consistent with this, with a femoral proximal
medial-lateral difference of 12mm and only
1mm of difference on the proximal anterior-
posterior diameter.
Regarding my initial hypothesis about
impairment and asymmetry in Burial 21, the
results did not show what had been expected.
The limb was apparently used enough that the
external dimensions measured in this study did
not reveal signs of impaired function or
decreased use other than the specific limited
asymmetries previously noted. Rather,
significant asymmetry on one measure, on part
of one bone, did not necessarily mean there will
be more asymmetries found elsewhere in the
bone or limb. If this statement is true, when
Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the Stirrup Court Collection
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
11
applied more generally, differential preservation
could result in many missed cases of disability in
the archeological record, especially since
atrophied elements, or those otherwise
weakened by trauma or pathology, may be less
likely to preserve.
Also, the lack of any asymmetry in Burial
21s distal femoral epicondylar breadth might
indicate, in contrast to the case provided by
Knüsel and colleagues (1992; 2000; discussed
above in the “Background literature on
asymmetry section) that the necrosis in his
right hip joint either did not occur prior to
physiological maturity or began in childhood but
did not progress to the severity seen at death
until into adulthood. However, the extensive
remodeling of the right femoral head and
acetabulum, combined with other
paleopathological indicators would indicate that
this condition likely had a subadult onset, and
that perhaps the explanation for the lack of
asymmetry elsewhere in the limb is that the
necrosis in the hip joint did not impair the
function of the limb as much as might be
assumed, which is consistent with Parish’s
(2000, 118) analysis of the articular facets of the
lower right limb indicating high mechanical
loading.
As Dettwyler (1991), Roberts (2000), and
DeGusta (2002) argue that we should not make
assumptions about the quality of life or ability to
survive without care and assistance of people
with disabilities in the past on the basis of
skeletal evidence alone, perhaps participants in
this field of study should also be cautious in
making determinations about the extent of
disability experienced by a person exhibiting
indications of physical impairment such as
asymmetrical atrophy, especially in cases
without such good preservation as seen in this
skeletal collection.
Stirrup Court and Belleville
Both samples show low overall asymmetry,
excepting the specific instances of trauma or
pathology. It is possible that the median
differences between the Stirrup Court and
Belleville samples in femoral proximal anterior-
posterior and midshaft medial-lateral and
anterior-posterior midshaft diameters mentioned
above may be due to differences in measurement
technique between the observers who collected
the data in the different samples, so that no
conclusions can be drawn from these
discrepancies at this time. Furthermore, the
Stirrup Court sample size is too small to
thoroughly investigate sexual dimorphism of
asymmetry. If the higher asymmetries in some of
the males are representative, the graph of
humeral shaft circumference absolute
asymmetry does appear to fit with other studies’
findings regarding gender-specific activities such
as agricultural labor for males versus domestic
labor for females, with males showing greater
asymmetry in the upper limbs (Sladek et al.
2007). However, if the 2 males with higher
asymmetries are outliers and the more accurate
pictures is one of a lack of significant differences
between males and females, this might reflect
changing behavior patterns and division of labor
in this peri-urban sample (Auerbach & Ruff
2006).
The median AA of 2.50% in humeral
minimum shaft circumference in the Stirrup
Court males appears to fit well within the Euro-
American category in Churchill & Formicola’s
(1997, 27-28) analysis of percentage asymmetry
in humeral shaft circumference in both recent
and fossil males, with the Euro-American
sample having a range of 0.00% to 7.80% and a
quartile range of 1.60% to 3.30%. However, the
median AA on the same measure in the sample
of Belleville males is above this range at 8.51%.
Statistical analyses showing the Belleville
females as slightly more asymmetrical than the
males in humeral minimum shaft circumference,
and basically even on mean and median, would
appear to support the hypothesis that the
Stirrup Court data, despite the small sample
size, indicate that sexual dimorphism in the
upper limbs was relatively low in this
nineteenth-century population, with males
slightly more asymmetrical than females, and
that this reflects changing behavior and labor
patterns in the move towards urbanization, as
Stirrup Court is peri-urban’ and Belleville is a
more urban population.
H. T. Battles
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
12
Finally, articular measures are ones affected
by osteoarthritis and many of the cases of
asymmetry in the Stirrup Court sample
occurred in elderly individuals showing signs of
osteoarthritis. Therefore, perhaps asymmetry
studies using older individuals are less useful in
detecting non-osteoarthritic, or non-age-related,
impairment and disability.
Future directions for research
In terms of population asymmetry and
sexual dimorphism, the difference between the
two samples in their humeral minimum shaft
circumference absolute asymmetries requires
further investigation, especially to consider the
higher asymmetries in the Belleville sample and
its apparent pattern of greater asymmetry in the
females versus the males, which may have been
affected by the heterogeneity of age in the
samples. Further research into differences
between rural, peri-urban, and urban
populations would also contribute to greater
insight into the processes of urbanization;
Waldron (2000, 43) notes, for example, that
more people with disabilities may be found in
towns or cities, where they might be better able
to support themselves.
Regarding skeletal evidence of disability, as
Roberts (2000) has noted the archeology of
disability is a relatively new field of study and
one which can potentially gain much from
bioarcheological research. Finlay (1999, 4),
editor of the “Disability and Archaeology”
themed issue of the Archaeological Review from
Cambridge, stated that this volume “mark[ed]
the tentative beginnings of a disability discourse
in [archeology].” In this new area of study, there
is a need for better understanding of how to
interpret impairment and disability in the
bioarcheological record and, as Sofaer (2006)
argues, for physical anthropology and
bioarcheology/osteoarcheology to contribute to
archeological theories about the body. As the
archaeological body is reimagined as the nexus
between biology and culture” (Sofaer 2006, 9,
30), perhaps the archaeology of disability will
not only take on greater significance within the
field of archaeology but also aid in bridging the
divide across the discipline and contribute to
the creation of a broader anthropology of
disability’. Shakespeare (1999, 99) takes the
same view, noting that archaeology has the
capacity to revisit and problematise issues of the
human body in time, and to connect the
physical to the socio-cultural.
Some impairments/disabilities may be more
difficult to observe and interpret than others.
Loss of a limb may be obvious, while loss of sight
or hearing may not leave skeletal evidence short
of signs of injury to the associated areas of bone
or paleopathologic indications of diseases which
cause vision or hearing loss. There are also
mental or cognitive disabilities to consider. In
the Stirrup Court sample, for example, John
Robotham (Burial 21) was recorded in the 1871
London census as “Over 20, unable to read”,
“Over 20, unable to write”, and “Deaf and
dumb (Parish 2000, 150), yet these particular
disabilities were not necessarily apparent in the
paleopathological analysis of his remains even
though he was an individual with extensive
physical evidence of a serious disorder (Parish
2000, 113). Finally, as Knüsel (2000, 395)
suggests that “further insights into activity-
related change will come from anthropological
and human biological studies of modern
individuals” with documented personal
circumstances and social and cultural contexts,
so too would further insights into the skeletal
consequences of disability be gained from
studies of modern individuals with disabilities.
This distance between lived disabilities and
what is present in the osteological data alone
suggests that individuals with physical
impairments and disabilities are
underrepresented in the bioarcheological record
due to a gap in interpretative ability, even
without the potential issue of differential
preservation of impaired skeletal elements.
However, perhaps more research is warranted
on the latter as well, whether through the use of
taphonomic experimentation or by comparing
the archival and skeletal data on individuals
with documented impairments to see if the
affected elements are less likely to preserve
overall and what kinds of impairments show
greater or lesser preservation. As Waldron
(2000, 43) has observed, while it appears that
most individuals with disabilitieswill remain
Long bone bilateral asymmetry in the Stirrup Court Collection
Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21 (2009)
13
hidden from archaeological gaze, diligent
searching should reveal at least some to view.”
Greater attention to issues surrounding the
visibility of impairment/disability in the
archeological record and in bioarcheological
theory would contribute to building the field of
the archeology of disability and to producing
insights into disability in the past with relevance
to archeology and anthropology more broadly.
Acknowledgements
I wish to thank first of all the late Dr. Shelley
Saunders for her help and guidance along every step of
the project’s progress and for providing access to the
Belleville data. I also wish to thank Dr. Andrew
Nelson and Anna Jung at the University of Western
Ontario for their help in accessing the Stirrup Court
collection and Dr. Joseph Parish of Cape Breton
University. And finally, thanks to Bonnie Kahlon and
Hagen Kluge for their help with various technical
issues and to the two anonymous Nexus reviewers for
their feedback and suggestions.
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