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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2016 Jun;160(2):272-83. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22954. Epub 2016 Feb 8.

Frailty and famine: Patterns of mortality and physiological stress among victims of famine in medieval London.

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Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, 29208.
Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, Museum of London, London, EC2Y 5HN, United Kingdom.



Famine can be defined as a shortage of foodstuffs that instigates widespread excess mortality due to starvation, infectious disease, and social disruption. Like other causes of catastrophic mortality, famine has the potential to be selective. This study examines how famines in medieval London were selective with respect to previous stress, age, and sex.


This study compares famine burials to nonfamine (attritional) burials from the St Mary Spital cemetery, London (c. 1120-1540 AD). We evaluate the associations between age, sex, and skeletal stress indicators [cribra orbitalia, linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH), and periosteal lesions] using hierarchical log-linear analysis. Additionally, sex is modeled as a covariate affecting the Gompertz hazard of mortality.


Significant associations exist between famine burials and LEH and between attritional burials and periosteal lesions, independent of age or sex. Sex did not significantly affect risk of mortality in the 12th-13th centuries. However, males interred in attritional burials c. 1400-1539 AD faced a lower risk of mortality compared to females.


The LEH results suggest that early exposure to stressors increased frailty in the context of famine. The periosteal lesion results suggest that individuals were more likely to survive stressors and thus form these lesions under nonfamine conditions. Hazard analysis suggests that a cultural or biological transformation during this period affected sex differences in mortality. Possible causes include the selective mortality during the Black Death, which might have influenced risks of mortality among survivors, or unequal distribution of improvements in standards of living after the epidemic. Am J Phys Anthropol 160:272-283, 2016. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


Black Death; bioarchaeology; hierarchical log-linear analysis; paleodemography; paleopathology

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