Trauma as a biological consequence of inequality: A biocultural analysis of the skeletal remains of Washington D.C's African American poor
Muller, Jennifer Lynn
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The general purpose of this study is to determine the biological impact of poverty on African Americans living in Washington D.C., 1860-1970. This research is conducted within a biocultural framework, emphasizing the relationships between biological, environmental, and cultural variables. Specifically, this study evaluates the etiology of traumatic injuries, i.e. fractures and dislocations, in the W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection. The W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection is comprised of the remains of the poorest members of the African American community of Washington D.C. These skeletons were processed and collected from the anatomy dissections performed by medical students at Howard University. As related through archival research, political and economic discrimination persisted throughout this time period. The unequal power structure, based on systematic racism, restricted the job opportunities for African Americans in D.C. The majority of Blacks were restricted to physically taxing positions---laborer for men and domestic for women. Analysis of traumatic injuries is a major focus of research in physical anthropology. Skeletal remains preserve evidence of injuries sustained by individuals throughout their lifetimes. Anthropological analysis of trauma is particularly informative as certain behaviors are known to influence fracture pattern and frequency. Therefore, this dissertation seeks to address two major questions: Does skeletal trauma frequency and patterning reflect the physically demanding and often dangerous nature of these occupations? Given the sexual division of labor, does trauma differ between males and females? Antemortem fracture and dislocation data from a subset of 205 individuals are presented. Results indicate a comparatively high frequency of trauma in the sample. Of particular interest is the high rate of fracture in females. Elemental analyses reveal that the only cases of statistically significant differences between males and females are to the fibula, metacarpals, and nasal bones. This indicates that males and females were at a similar risk of fracture. Analyses also reveal that the pattern of trauma is suggestive of both accidents and interpersonal violence. There are several fractures to the lower limb that are indicative of accidents, particularly to the fibula, which may be a consequence of work-related injury. There are also fractures to the clavicle, humerus, scapula, and distal ends of the radius and ulna that are suggestive of accidents. However, the pattern and frequency of fractures to the cranial and facial elements, coupled with fractures to the metacarpals, is highly suggestive of interpersonal violence. This research contributes to our current knowledge of African American health in historical contexts. By utilizing a biocultural framework, it underscores the importance of researching extra-local and local factors in the analysis of health. It also aims to contribute to broader studies on the biology of poverty and occupational stress.