Vignettes California coast

By all indications, the health of the inhabitants of the Channel Islands as well as the California coast declined leading up to ad 1300 (Walker and Thornton 2002: 519). There is evidence of infectious disease and an increase in the exposure to a range of pathogens in part due to the increase in large and densely settled communities. In the Channel Islands there was an intensification of marine resources, and in the coastal and interior regions there was an intensification of acorn processing as a means to producing food in an increasingly marginalized environment due to climate changes. Walker and Hollimon (1989) demonstrated that everyone had to work harder, but males, in particular, showed increasing amounts of arthritis and wear and tear on their bones. Although there are no studies focused exclusively on the elderly portion of the skeletal collections from these areas and periods, it can be assumed that the changes to the skeletons reported for this region in Chapter 5 had an effect on mortality in the older age categories.

Osteoarthritis rates were calculated for individuals over the age of 40 years and compared with individuals aged between 30 and 40 years and those under 30 years (Walker and Hollimon 1989: 179). The 30 individuals over the age of 40 years had the most osteoarthritic changes at the joint surfaces and these arthritic changes increased over time by comparing individuals from the earliest periods (3500—1170 bc) with the later ones (ad 400—1500), demonstrating the increasing patterns of work that came with settled and larger communities.

Signs of anemia in the older portion of the adults (aged 45+) showed that there were likely nutritional inadequacies that affected their overall health (Walker 1986: 348). For males over the age of 45, there was an overall frequency of 40.8% compared with the frequency for elderly females, which was 35.7%. Studies of elderly today find that about 10% of elderly populations over the age of 65 are anemic, and many of the studies show that a greater percentage of males develop anemia later in life than do age-matched females (Pang and Schrier 2012: 133). Some of the effects of anemia on older adults are that they are more prone to being tired, and there is a progressive decline in work performance, impaired cognition, and a susceptibility to falling (Price et al. 2011: 159).

There was also an increase in violence and warfare during this time. The Channel Islands and the California coast have been intensively analyzed in terms of the environmental instability that was experienced over time by the inhabitants and the general problems that it produced, particularly during ad 1200 (Jones et al. 1999). Evidence of nonlethal violence in the form of cranial depression fractures were found on 11.8% (18 individuals) of individuals aged as old adults (50+ years) from the Channel Islands and the coast of Southern California (Walker 1989: 317).

Because these cranial depression fractures were all similar in size and shape (and similar to those on younger and middle-aged adults discussed in Chapter 5) it has been suggested that they were made during a “culturally regulated pattern of violence, perhaps involving a specialized weapon” (Walker 1989: 319). These may have been the result of interpersonal conflict and competition over scarce resources. That elderly males and females were involved in this suggests that it may have been the leaders of the group who partook in this activity, and it is likely that it involved spectators.

Given some of these trends for increasing osteoarthritis, anemia, and potential for violent interactions, growing old on the California Coast presented the elderly with challenges that may have increased their probability of dying. The skeletal collections from this region are like many others that have failed to produce a significant percentage of individuals over the age of 50, so that researchers simply pool the data and consider everyone over 40 or 45 to be in the elderly category. It is difficult to tease out how the oldest people in that category were doing.

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