Thalassaemia: its diagnosis and interpretation in past skeletal populations
Lewis, M.E. (2012) Thalassaemia: its diagnosis and interpretation in past skeletal populations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 22 (6). pp. 685-693. ISSN 1099-1212
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1002/oa.1229
The diagnosis of thalassaemia in archaeological populations has long been hindered by a lack of pathogonomic features, and the non-specific nature of cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis. In fact, clinical research has highlighted more specific diagnostic criteria for thalassaemia major and intermedia based on changes to the thorax (‘rib-within-a-rib’ and costal osteomas). A recent re-examination of 364 child skeletons from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset revealed children with general ‘wasting’ of the bones and three children who demonstrated a variety of severe lesions (e.g. zygomatic bone and rib hypertrophy, porotic hyperostosis, rib lesions, osteopenia and pitted diaphyseal shafts) that are inconsistent with dietary deficiency alone, and more consistent with a diagnosis of genetic anaemia. Two of these children displayed rib lesions typical of those seen in modern cases of thalassaemia. The children of Poundbury Camp represent the first cases of genetic anaemia identified in a British archaeological population. As thalassaemia is a condition strongly linked to Mediterranean communities, the presence of this condition in a child from England, found within a mausoleum, suggests that they were born to wealthy immigrant parents living in this small Roman settlement in Dorset. This paper explores the diagnostic criteria for genetic anaemia in the archaeological literature and what its presence in ancient populations can contribute to our knowledge of past human migration.