Porotic Hyperostosis, Anemias, Malarias, and Marshes in the Prehistoric Eastern Mediterranean

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Science  12 Aug 1966:
Vol. 153, Issue 3737, pp. 760-763
DOI: 10.1126/science.153.3737.760


Porotic hyperostosis, formerly called osteoporosis symmetrica, is an overgrowth of the spongy marrow space of the skull. In children, other bones may also be affected. The disease is a consequence of one of the thalassemias or sicklemia. These anemias are balanced polymorphisms which are apparently maintained by falciparum malaria. Falciparum malaria spread over the anopheline belts of the Old World in coincidence with porotic hyperostosis, but did not penetrate the New World. Here some other parasitism or deficiency anemia must have been the cause of porotic hyperostosis in ancient times. In Anatolia, Greece, and Cyprus from the seventh to second millennia B.C., porotic hyperostosis occurred frequently in early farmers who lived in marshy areas, but rarely in inhabitants of dry or rocky areas or in latest Paleolithic hunters. As shown by skeletal samples from Greece, the frequency of the disease decreased as farming methods improved. However, from Hellenistic to Romantic times it again increased together with increases in the incidence of malaria and in poorer farming. There are correlations between porotic hyperostosis and adult stature and fertility. The mutations producing falciparum malaria therefore must antedate seventh millenium B.C. and I think may have an Eastern Mediterranean origin.