The Bioarcheology of Caplen Mound (continued)

Once the stress has been removed the teeth will begin growing again, but a line or shallow groove will remain on the tooth. This line is known as an enamel hypoplasia, and the number and frequency in a population can be used to reconstruct the state of childhood health. The individuals from Caplen Mound, as well as Jamaica Beach and Mitchell Ridge, suffered from very low frequencies of this defect. Apparently, children suffered little stress from illness or undernutrition.

Furthermore, there is little evidence for other signs of malnutrition or chronic stress during childhood or early adulthood. Iron-deficiency anemia can leave a distinctive set of lesions, particularly on the skull. The roofs of the eye orbits may appear pitted and porous. This is known as criba orbitalia. A similar condition may also be observed on the outside surface of the cranium, a condition known as porotic hyperostosis. These lesions are indications that the body is not deriving enough iron from its diet. As a result the body will “raid” the skeletal tissues for iron, creating the pitted lesions.

The reasons for iron-deficiency anemia include a lack of iron in the diet or heavy infestation by intestinal parasites. These parasites will use the iron in the diet and in the blood for themselves, which denies the body the amount of iron it needs. Even if the diet contains sufficient levels of iron, a heavy parasite load will rob the body of this essential nutrient, and thus force the leaching of iron from the skeletal system.

Individuals from Caplen Mound and the Galveston Island cemeteries display only a few instances of criba orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis. Some individuals were definitely suffering from anemia, but the population at large was not seriously affected. Evidence from the skeletons of Caplen Mound seem to indicate that these people were very successful in avoiding chronic food shortages and collecting the nutrients they needed to be healthy.

This is not to say that life for the Caplen Mound people was trouble-free. There probably were individuals who suffered from a lack of food or heavy parasite infestation. However, the preponderance of skeletal evidence indicates that the normal pattern of growth and development of these people was not seriously impeded. Diet and health may not have been absolutely perfect, but it was adequate to grow to normal human proportions.

However, the skeletons from Caplen Mound also tell us that they were not free of infectious disease. Many of the bones show the tell-tale lesions of chronic bacterial infections. Common bacteria, such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus, can cause serious or even fatal infections. These bacteria may enter the body through a cut or compound fracture. Many of the bones from Caplen Mound are swollen and have scarred, porous surfaces. Technically, this is known as periostitis (an inflammation of the membrane that covers bone) or osteitis (inflammation of the bone tissue). A few of the long bones from Caplen Mound possess these lesions in an advanced state. If the infection becomes even more severe, a cloacae (literally, a hole) will open up on the bone so pus can drain from the infected tissues. The rate of bacterial infection at Caplen Mound is high, with almost 25% of individuals affected.

These distinctive infectious lesions may also point to a bacterial disease not related to common Staphylococcus or Streptococcus. Bacteria called Treponema pallidum cause various diseases of the skin and underlying tissue. These include such maladies as pinta, yaws, bejel, and congenital (passed from mother to offspring) syphilis. The diseases are usually passed by simple skin to skin contact or from mother to child in utero. A few of the skeletons from Caplen Mound, and contemporary remains from other cemeteries on Galveston Island, show a pattern of infection similar to infection from Treponema bacterium. Infectious lesions on the lower legs, lower arms, and the cranium are the signature of treponematosis, and demonstrate that this disease was present, but probably rare, on the upper Texas coast.

Taken as a whole, a complex picture of health and disease emerges from the human remains from Caplen Mound. The people were well-fed, robust, tall, and show little evidence of chronic childhood stress. All of these factors indicate that their subsistence strategies were very successful and chronic hunger and malnutrition was rare. Most individuals were able to grow to or near their genetic potential for stature; in fact, they were almost as tall as the average height of modern Americans. However, they did suffer from chronic bouts of infectious, but non-communicable, disease. An individual may have lived with these infectious for months, if not years. Some individuals recovered and their lesions healed. Others may have succumbed, or died from another unknown cause while the disease was still active.

Overall, the people of Caplen Mound were well-nourished and adapted to their environment. Serious challenges to their health were present, but these were not enough to disrupt normal growth and development. Most of the individuals at Caplen Mound lived relatively long lives and were able to thrive in a dynamic, but always challenging ecosystem. The real story told by the bones of Caplen Mound is not one of how they died, but of how they lived.

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