Mercury Series


by Charles F. Merbs


The everyday activities of humans leave a permanent record in their skeletons. To see how well this record can be identified and interpret-ed, certain aspects of degenerative and traumatic pathology were studied in a skeletal series of Hudson Bay Inuit. This series, recovered from the site of Tunirmiut at Native Point, Southampton Island, NWT, in 1955 and 1959, represents the Sadlermiut, a people who became extinct during the winter of 1902-03. Twenty activity patterns which had the potential of leaving a permanent imprint on the skeleton were identified, some of these common to humanity in general, some characteristic of all Inuit, and some unique to the Sadlermiut. The reconstruction of these activity patterns is based upon early first-hand accounts of the Sadlermiut, recollections of Mvilingmiut who had lived with the Sadlermiut before the winter of 1902-03, and the findings of archaeologists.

The excellent preservation of the Native Point skeletons makes it possible to age and sex them with considerable acc~uracy and to observe even the lowest grades of skeletal pathology. The skeletons of all adults in the series, 41 males and 50 females, were examined for the presence of osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease), osteophytosis (degenerative disk disease), compression of vertebral bodies, spondylo-lysis, and anterior tooth loss, and results were tabulated according to sex. Observations were also made on younger skeletons and for other categories of pathology where appropriate. The pathology patterns thus discovered were then compared with the activity patterns which had been reconstructed for the Sadlermiut, and a number of significant activity-pathology correlations were identified.

The Sadlermiut females were found to have twice the incidence of temporomandibular osteoarthritis as the males, the difference attributed to the women's use of their teeth to soften skins. The greater involve-ment on the left side in the females suggests that the objects being softened were held in the left hand, thus freeing the right for other tasks. The osteoarthritic patterning seen in the female skeleton also correlates well with scraping and cutting skins, and sewing them into clothing, and the pattern seen in the wrist suggests that the cutting was done with the left hand. The patterning of osteoarthritis seen in the males correlates most closely with harpoon throwing and kayak pad-dling, and the involvement of the ulnar side of the left wrist indicates that the left hand was used as a pivot in using the double-bladed paddle to propel the kayak.

The distribution of vertebral osteophytosis in the Sadlermiut cor-relates closely with the curvature of the column, the greatest involve-ment occurring in units most distant from the line of weight transmis-sion through the column. Both sexes exhibit a high frequency of verte-bral compression which is attributed to sledding and tobogganing. The pattern of compression differs between the two sexes, however, males showing greater involvement in the lower thoracic-upper lumbar region, and females in the lower mid-thoracic region. The pattern in the females, along with a concentration of costovertebral osteoarthritis and vertebral osteophytosis in this same region, is probably due to their carrying of heavy objects, particularly children, on their back. The Sadlermiut, especially the males, exhibit a high frequency of spondylo-lysis, a condition attributed to their posture, the lifting of heavy objects, and falls on the ice. Anterior tooth loss is also prevalent among the Sadlermiut and appears to reflect an intensive use of their teeth as tools.

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