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Life In Bone

A Look at Skeletal Markers for Activity

Ceilidh Lerwick

Activity patterns to bioarchaeologists are a bit like the search for the Holy Grail:
not enough information to figure it all out, and no one is sure that finding the answer is
even possible in the first place. Yet (p)hysical activity is a defining characteristic of
human adaptive regimes and (w)orkload and activity have enormous implications for
the demographic history of a population. (Larsen 1997:161) So, we continue to delve
into science and information, hoping to find enough clues to lead us to the Golden
Cupfiguring out the what, how and sometimes even the where and who of the past.
Markers of occupational stress, or MOS, include conditions such as arthritis, robusticity
and articular modifications. (Kennedy 1989, 1998, Wilczak & Kennedy 1998) These
conditions are evaluated for the information they can give us about activity patterns in
the past. But, how is this information being gleaned? What are the questions being
asked, and are we even asking the right questions in the first place?
One of the most well researched markers of activity is osteoarthritis and its
associated counterparts: arthrosis, septic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. all to be
understood hereafter in the term: arthritis. Arthritis is a multi-factorial disorder which
is dependent on things such as: genetics, sex, climate, health and weight, metabolism,
and trauma; just to name a few. (Weiss et al 2007, Larsen 1997, Jurmain 1991).
Essentially, arthritis is the result of a physiological imbalance between the mechanical
stress in the joint tissue and the ability of the joint tissues to withstand. . . stress.
(Radin 1982:20) Even more so, it is the destruction of the joint tissue itself, leading to
porous proliferation, osteophytes, eburnation, etc. Thus arthritis can be a strong
indicator of activity patterns, especially those chronically performed.
For example, Merbs (1983) found a high incidence of arthritis in the left
temporomandibular joint in the Sadlermuit women of northern Canada. He had the

added benefit of ethnographic information demonstrating that the women in this
population were softening leather using their left side dentition. Stirland (2001) found
that the sailors aboard the 16th century ship Mary Rose had a high prevalence of
thoracic arthritis and from historical and ethnographic accounts was able to deduce this
was from the heavy lifting involved in life at sea. Wells (1982:152) has even referred to
arthritis as the most useful of all diseases for reconstructing the lifestyle of early
populations; and at the time this statement was made, the sentiment was probably
quite accurate.
Musculo-stress markers, also known as MSMs or enthesopathies, are another
well studied form of activity marker. These are located at the point where muscles
attach to the bone. Bone remodeling theory holds that when muscle insertion sites are
subjected to stress, blood flow is increased, stimulating osteoblasts to form new bone in
the stimulated area. Enthesopathies, or bone proliferation at muscle attachment sites,
is the result. (Larsen 1997, Hawkey & Merbs 1995, Kennedy 1989, 1998, Wilczak &
Kennedy 1998) Anthropologists have concluded using bone remodeling theory that
large muscle markers are due to continued muscle use in daily and repetitive tasks
(especially when started at a young age and continued through adulthood), which has
made muscle markers ideal for reconstructing past lifestyles. (Weis 2007:931)
Fur traders are one group in which MSMs have been a significant line of study, in
part because of the documentation available on the physical activities of the occupation,
and also in part because of the vast amount of conspicuous bone modification available
for study in their skeletons. Fur traders are known for having carried immensely heavy
loads and for rowing or mushing for hours on end with only 6-7 hours of rest in a day.
(Lai & Lovell 1992, Lovell & Dublenko 1999). Markers on the fur traders skeletons

include extremely pronounced muscle attachment sites, especially in the attachment
sites for the trapezius, pronator quadratus, deltoid, brachialis and supinator: all major
muscles used in rowing. Two of the individuals from the Fort Edmonton locale, have
brachialis attachment sites that have progressed to the point of becoming lesions.
(Lovell & Dublenko 1999) Attachments for flexor muscles of the hands are also marked.
Of the two surviving mandibles at the Seafort site, both exhibit pronounced squaring of
the anterior margins of the horizontal ramus as well as considerable gonial eversion.
This is suggestive of a great stress to the masseter muscle. (Lai & Lovell 1992) All
markers are consistent with, even a testament to, the known heavy activities performed
by those involved in the fur trade.
Cortical defects have also been classified as MSMs. (Larsen 1997) These defects
are cavities in the cortical surface of bone with a rough or irregular floor and relatively
smooth margins. Like enthesopathies, it has been suggested that cortical defects are
caused by chronic mechanical stress at muscular insertion sites; and cortical defects do
sometimes appear at points near the radial-medial head of the gastrocnemius or the
insertion sites for the pectoralis and teres major. (Larsen 1997) However, this
hypothesis seems a bit deficient in its reasoning. Why would chronic stress produce a
mound (hypertrophic proliferation or enthesopathy) in one instance and then produce a
hole (cortical defect) in another?
In addition, not all cortical defects occur near muscle insertion sites. Stafnes
defect, for instance, is a classic cortical defect which occurs on the lingual surface of the
mandible anterior to the pterygoideous internus attachment, inferior to the mylohyoideus attachment, and posterior to the digastric attachment site. In other words,
nowhere near a muscle attachment. It is, however, exactly in the fossa for the

submaxillary gland. This would appear to indicate a connection to this gland and not a
tendonous articulation. It would at least seem unconnected, or at best tangentially
connected, to any musculo-attachment sites. (Lukacs and Martin 2002, Gray 1918,
Dauzvardis et al 1998, Langlais et al 1976, Kay 1974) In this regard, it is still possible
that cortical defects represent some form of MOS; however, it seems more likely that
they are linked with bursars or some other pathology with merely a tangential
connection to muscle attachments.
A third line of study into skeletal markers of occupational stress is bone
robusticity. In 1892, Julius Wolff made his famous hypothesis that has been come to be
known as Wolffs Law. His theory was essentially that in a healthy individual, bone will
adapt to the stress load under which it is placed. If loading on a particular bone
increases, the bone will remodel itself to become stronger; usually involving an increase
in bone density and thickness. This will increase the amount of effort that individuals
body needs to put in to maintaining this structure. Therefore, the inverse holds as well:
if loading decreases, the bone will resorb and remodel the bone; decreasing the density
and thickness. (Wolff 1892)
Although modifications have been suggested and made to Wolffs original theory,
(Frost 1960, Ruff et al 2006) the basic concept still stands and plays a part in the above
mentioned MSMs. It also plays a significant part in overall bone robusticity. Stock and
Pfeiffer (2001), for example, found a greater lower limb robusticity in African terrestrial
foragers when compared to marine foragers on the Andaman Islands. The marine
foragers also exhibited a greater upper limb robusticity. Their conclusion was that the
terrestrial foragers had a much more mobile lifestyle, at least in terms of using their own
two feet for locomotion; while the islanders bipedal mobility was limited, most travel

being accomplished while sitting in boats. The upper arm robusticity was explained by
the weight of hauling in fishing nets; an equivalent activity that the Africans did not
Adults who exercise tend to have higher bone mass and size than adults who are
relatively sedentary. (Larsen 1997:196). Thus, studying and quantifying robusticity has
been a key direction in the research into activity patterns and the main method of
quantifying this has been with the use of cross-sectional analysis. Cross-sectional
analysis is a method borrowed from engineering. It applies the basis of beam theory to
evaluate a longbones strength using measurements taken from the cross-section.
Measurements can be taken by cutting the bone perpendicular to the main axis or by use
of modern imaging methods.
Evaluation using the external measurements has been done, but not with the
vigor of the cross-sectional method; the rationale being that external evaluation neglects
the thickness of the cortical bone as well as neglecting the inclusion of all the various
ways bone can strengthen itself. (Larsen 1997, Ruff et al 2006, Demes 2007)
[B]ones are rarely subject to compression alone. During movement, both bone shape and
muscle actions create high levels of bending and torsional strains in bones. These forces
are resisted not just by the amount of cortical bone, but by how it is distributed in a cross
section. Second moments of area are used to estimate the resistance of the cross section
to these forces: I, which represents the second moment of area, is used to estimate
resistance to bending around a particular axis (for example, I measures resistance around
the anteroposterior axis). The polar second moment of area (designated J), which
estimates the resistance of the cross section under torsional or twisting forces, is
frequently used as a general indicator of bone strength. (Bridges 1996:112)

The benefit of the cross-sectional method is a broader range of information about

how the bone has modified itself, hopefully leading the researcher to a better
understanding of what type of force (torsion, bending, compression, etc.) caused the

modification. If the type of force is understood, this can lead to the knowledge of what
activities the individual(s) was involved in.
The problem with cross-sectional analysis is wrapped-up in the very reason it was
created. Engineers use it to test the strength of beams (or tubes) for use in construction.
A beam is a long stretch of material, say iron or wood, in which the sides are parallel to
one another. In the case of a tube the sides are parallel to the central axis. In the case of
an I-beam, the sides are connected by a wall that runs perpendicular to the sides. In
each case, the beam is a geometric object with no alteration of its structure from one end
to another.
A bone, on the other hand, is not a geometric object. At least not in the man
made sense. A long bone is essentially a tube, but the sides rarely, if ever, run parallel
to the central axis. In fact the sides rarely, if ever, even run in a straight line. There are
dips and twists and undulations. In addition to this, a beam is essentially a static being.
It is what it is and, except for some changes that do occur with time and environment
(iron rusts, wood decomposes, etc.) continue to be what it is until its use has finished.
Bone, on the other hand, is not static. While bone will always remain bone, it is a
dynamic substance: increasing density here, shifting shape there, until the original
shape is augmented and morphed to withstand the stress it is under.
Cross-sectional analysis has yet to account for this dynamic nature of bone beam
analysis. And so, researchers continue to make statements such as this one by Knusel
(2007): Although there is a growing understanding of how bone responds to stress, it is
rarely possible to identify the occupation even of living people from physical changes to
their bodies. Jurmain (1991) also cautioned that the connection of specific physical
stressors with skeletal characteristics is virtually impossible for prehistoric groups and

may not be possible even for people for which historical records and ethnographic
analogy are available.
Yet there is, if not disagreement with these sentiments; there is hope. Ronchese
published his 1948 book Occupational Marks and Other Physical Signs, much of which
is soft tissue related, but some skeletal information is included. Rogers et al (1987) at
least attempt to list arthropathies with most probable cause. And Kennedy et al (1999)
published a list of skeletal markers and their suggested causation.
So, will bioarchaeology be able to find the Holy Grail? While physical context and
material culture give clues to past behavior, analysis of the skeletons themselves is the
most direct way to reconstruct individual conduct and to explore intra- and
interpopulational differences in behavior. Research has only scratched the surface of
the enormous amount of information available from the skeleton. Living beings are
dynamic. Perhaps our techniques need to be as well. Can we compile our information
based on more than one evaluation? Start seeing the body as material culture like any
other artifact we would study. (Soafer 2006) Taking their cue from Lawrence Angel
Perhaps the Sauls (1989) have it right in looking at the story the skeleton tells you and
telling it in an osteobiography.
Take, for example, this lower right leg from a Fort Edmonton fur trader (Fig 1).
There is a pronounced hypertrophic MSM for the soleus on the posterior tibia. In
addition, there is an arthritic lesion at the proximal tibio-fibular articulation in the form
of remodeled bony proliferation on the tibia and resorption on the fibula. There is no
mention of this from Lovell & Dublenko (1999), and while it is difficult to say from this
photo, there seems to be a septic nature to this pathology. This condition is actually
apparent in two of the fur trader skeletons. There is a similar resorptive lesion on the

medio-proximal tibial surface at the
articulation of the semimembranosus
ligament. There is no arthritis or
eburnation on the superior surface of the
tibial proximal condyles.
Lovell & Dublenko (1999:254)
surmise that these lesions could be due
to the locomotor stresses of portaging
although an alternative explanation, and
perhaps a better one in this culturehistorical context given that the lesion
appears unilaterally, on the right leg, in
both individuals, is that the lesion results
from habitual kicking of the leg when

Figure 1 from Lovell and Dublenko (1999)

driving dog sleds. No further investigation was made within this paper.
Is this then the end of the information these bones can tell us? Is this a complete
osteobiography? Is there more that these bones can say if we but knew how to listen?
There is no suggestion explaining the hypertrophy of the popliteal line. No crosssectional analysis was done, or if it was, the results were not published. What can the
cortical bone density and distribution tell about this individuals activities? Why is there
no eburnation on the condylar articular surface, but so much arthritis around the
proximal metaphysis area? Activity patterns in youth affect the joints more than the
diaphyses of bones; thus joint changes can be a clue to the identity of activities begun in
youth, while shaft changes can be a clue to activities continued into or simple taken on

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in adulthood. (Knusel 2007, Ruff et al 1994) Could this knowledge be applied to the fur
trader skeletons? What can this concept tell us about the strength of the cortical bone of
this lower leg and what can it tell us about the obvious arthritic degeneration?
In addition, what about the condition of the fibula?
Fibulae are bones that are often regaled into the category of
highly variable without any significance being assigned to
that variability. It should not be forgotten that osteology is
covered by pathology, and there are actually quite a few
muscles that attach to (and therefore act upon) the fibula.
The fibula also acts as a strut or buttress, giving support to
the lateral condyle of the tibia and acting to stabilize the
ankle. (Lambert 1971) This function is highly suggestive of a
bone with strong forces acting upon it; and where there are
forces, there is Wolffs Law.
Notice that the Fort Edmonton fibula (fig 1) has a very
thin tubular shaft with a relatively large proximal head.
Compare this to a normal fibula (fig 2) which has a more
triangular shaft with rounded edges. Could there be certain
muscle forces, certain mechanical loadings, and therefore
certain activities that can be surmised from this fibular
Figure 2 from Gray (1918)


This fibula (fig 1) also has what is usually referred to as a hypertrophic

interosseous crest. Notice the difference in the hypertrophy of the broadly rounded
popliteal line compared to the thin, wide, and even sharp hypertrophy of the

11 | P a g e
interosseous crest. Should not only the question Why is the crest hypertrophic? be
asked; but also Why is the crest hypertrophic in this manner? Is there something in
the way the interosseous membrane functions that would produce such hypertrophy?
(Currently the function of interosseous membranes is poorly understood. See Skahen et
al 1997a & b and Wallace et al 1997).
What is to be gleaned from the apparent robusticity
of this tibia and the overall robusticity of the fur trader
skeletons in general? Take, for example, these two ulnae,
also from the Fort Edmonton site. The ulna on the right is
from a male. The one on the left is from a female. Both
ulnae scored an R3 using the Hawkey & Merbs (1995)
criteria. (Lovell & Dublenko 1999) Weiss (2007) cautions
that both size of the element and age of the individual need
to be taken in to consideration when assessing trait
robusticity. Even taking the minimal size differences into
account, the two ulnae do appear homogeneous, at least
where robusticity is concerned. This would seem to suggest
the same amount and similar type of work between males

Figure 3 from Lovell and Dublenko (1999)

and females. And yet, from ethnographic accounts, we know that women in the fur
trade did not perform the same tasks as the men. Perhaps robusticity is an erroneous
assessment and morphology the better evaluation. Could more information be gleaned
from not only the robustness, but also the apparent angle difference in the necks of the
two ulnae; or the shape difference in the interosseous crest?

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Researchers are looking at shape as an indicator of activity. Yet this is still playing
only a small part in their investigations. Rhodes and Knusel (2005), spend only 17 lines
in a 10 page paper addressing the shape of the humeri under investigation. Shaw and
Stock (2009) give it more discussion: 49 lines in the same number of pages. And, a few
researchers are showing shape its due deference. Galtes et al (2009) use the function of
shape to better understand curvature in the radius, and Bridges (1996) tries to include
shape and morphology to aid in her investigation of the shift over time from robusticity
to a more gracile skeleton among the genus Homo. Perhaps this line of research will aid
in the continued search for the Holy Grail.
Bones experience forces throughout an individuals life. Wolffs law applies and
bone modifies itself to enable itself to withstand the force or forces in question, whether
torsion, bending, shear, compression, tension or all of the above. In attempting to
discover the Holy Grailmarkers of occupational stress and ultimately knowledge of
past activitiesbioarchaeologists use arthritis, MSMs, and robusticity as primary lines
of investigation. There are problems with each method, but continued use of
methodology will hopefully lead to a refinement and improvement in techniques. And
perhaps trying to read the whole story the bones are telling us, rather than just a section
of the script will lead us to better techniques and even better questions to ask. Perhaps
thinking outside the box would benefit us all?

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