On aleoepidemiology of spina bifida sacralis: prevalence of the anomaly in Late Scythians of lower Dnieper region  

Karapetian M.K.






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Spina bifida is a developmental anomaly that is thought to be caused by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. Though the most significant association was found with the folic acid deficit during early embryogenesis, numerous genetic variants were also found to be in some association with the development of neural tube defects, but this data is inconsistent. It is still debated whether the unremarkable anomaly (spina bifida occulta) often observed in osteological samples is truly a form of neural tube defects forming in early embryogenesis, or is a minor variation that is forming later in postnatal life. Also, data is equivocal regarding the neurological consequences of sacral spina bifida occulta, some pointing to its clinical significance, others stating that it does not affect the wellbeing in any way. Though paleopathological studies on spina bifida are numerous, the frequency of the anomaly remains largely unknown for the Early Iron Age population of the Eurasian steppes. This study examines presence of sacral spina bifida in a Late Scynthian sample (3rd c. BC 3rd . AD) from the northern Black Sea region. Totally, 89 skeletons were examined, originating from cemeteries near Nikolayevka and Zolotaya Balka villages (Kherson Oblast, Ukrain). These cemeteries are located along the Dnieper river bank about 90 km apart. The people they represent were settled agriculturalists. The defect was scored when either or all of the three upper sacral vertebrae were affected (S1S3), its level was recorded. Totally, 16 % of individuals were affected. The majority of defects were observed solely on S1 level. Only two cases of spina bifida sacralis totalis were recorded. The frequency of the anomaly was not significantly different either between males and females, or between younger (<35 years) and older (>35 years) adults. In two instances, two individuals buried in a common grave both had spina bifida sacralis which may point to a biological relationship between them. The frequency of spina bifida sacralis is very close to the mean values, reported in the literature. Thus, no evidence of an increased selection against individuals in this group with this form of skeletal anomaly, or a significant impact of environmental factors, leading to its development in ontogenesis, is present. Also, contrary to literature data, it seems that in this sample age and sex were not the factors significantly contributing to the traits variation, though the age dynamics of this trait needs further consideration using a sample with higher proportion of senile individuals.

Keywords: Northern Black Sea region, Early Iron Age, spine anomalies, neural tube defects, nonmetric traits.


Funding. This work was supported by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, system number 075-10-2020-116 (grant number 13.1902.21.0023).

Acknowledgements. The author is grateful to Kartsev P.P. for technical assistance while working with collections.


Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Accepted: 30.05.2021

Article is published: 15.09.2022


Karapetian M.K., Research Institute and Museum of Anthropology, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Mokhovaya st., 11/1, 125009, Moscow, Russian Federation, E-mail: marishkakar@hotmail.com, https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1886-8943