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Approaches to osteoporosis in paleopathology: How did methodology shape bone loss research?

Anne-Marijn van Spelde 1Hannes Schroeder 2Anna Kjellström 3Kerstin Lidén 4

Int J Paleopathol doi: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2021.05.001. 


Objective: This paper will review how different methods employed to study bone loss in the past were used to explore different questions and aspects of bone loss, how methodology has changed over time, and how these different approaches have informed our understanding of bone loss in the past.

Materials and methods: A review and discussion is conducted on research protocols and results of 84 paleopathology publications on bone loss in archaeological skeletal collections published between 1969 and 2021.

Conclusions: The variety in research protocols confounds accurate meta-analysis of previously published research; however, more recent publications incorporate a combination of bone mass and bone quality based methods. Biased sample selection has resulted in a predominance of European and Medieval publications, limiting more general observations on bone loss in the past. Collection of dietary or paleopathological covariables is underemployed in the effort to interpret bone loss patterns.

Significance: Paleopathology publications have demonstrated differences in bone loss between distinct archaeological populations, between sex and age groups, and have suggested factors underlying observed differences. However, a lack of a gold standard has encouraged the use of a wide range of methods. Understanding how this array of methods effects results is crucial in contextualizing our knowledge of bone loss in the past.

Limitations: The development of a research protocol is also influenced by available expertise, available equipment, restrictions imposed by the curator, and site-specific taphonomic aspects. These factors will likely continue to cause (minor) biases even if a best practice can be established.

Suggestions for future research: Greater effort to develop uniform terminology and operational definitions of osteoporosis in skeletal remains, as well as the expansion of time scale and geographical areas studied. The Next-Generation Sequencing revolution has also opened up the possibility of ancient DNA analyses to study genetic predisposition to bone loss in the past.