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Body Mass Estimation from Human Skeletal Remains: An Anthropometric Assessment of Nutritional Status in the New York African Burial Ground Population

Oppenheimer, Julia

The New York African Burial Ground (NYABG) Project unearthed a population of enslaved and free Africans who lived under severe stress in 18th century Manhattan. Body mass estimation from human skeletal remains offers new insights into the nutritional status of adults and children from the New York African Burial Ground. Anthropometric data from the New York African Burial Ground Project database were used to estimate body mass, stature, and body mass index (BMI) for a skeletal sample of adults (≥18 years, n=110) and subadults (0–17.5 years, n=13). Adult body mass and BMI estimates were assessed relative to the 1960–1962 National Health Examination Survey (NHES) dataset (18–74 years) and the World Health Organization (WHO) international classification of underweight, overweight, and obese. Subadult body mass, stature, and BMI estimates were compared to the 2006 WHO Child Growth Standards and 2007 WHO Growth Reference (0–19 years) and evaluated for stunting (Height ≤ WHO 5%, BMI > -2SD) and wasting (Height > 5%, BMI ≤ -2SD). Mean differences in adult male and female body mass between the NYABG and NHES samples were statistically significant (p < 0.001), yet adult male and female BMI estimates fell unanimously within the normal and overweight ranges (18.5–30.0 kg/m2). Minor sex differences in mean adult BMI estimates were statistically insignificant (p=0.104). Young subadults (0-9 years) showed widespread stunting and wasting compared to the WHO growth charts, indicating both chronic and acute physiological stress. These results suggest that the children of the New York African Burial Ground were disadvantaged nutritionally compared to the adult sample, who sustained high muscle mass in response to strenuous labor. The consideration of biomechanics and body composition in the analysis of human skeletal remains is critically important for assessing nutritional status at the time of death, and serves as a powerful addition to the bioarchaeological toolset.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology (Barnard College)
Degree
B.A., Barnard College
Published Here
June 3, 2016
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