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Brief communication Transportation and trauma Dog-sledding and vertebral compression in Alaskan Eskimos.

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Brief Communication: Transportation and Trauma:
Dog-Sledding and Vertebral Compression in
Alaskan Eskimos
Scott S. Legge*
Anthropology Department, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN 55105
vertebral trauma; activity markers; Arctic Alaska; Nunivak Island; Golovin Bay
Vertebral compression, as evidenced by
compression of the centrum, was observed within two
Native Alaskan skeletal samples. Information was collected from 1,071 and 656 vertebrae from Golovin Bay
and Nunivak Island, Alaska, respectively. In addition,
patterns of compression related vertebral change in each
collection were characterized by sex and location within
the vertebral column. The overall frequencies of vertebral compression were 3.6% (n 5 721) at Golovin Bay
and 1.7% (n 5 403) at Nunivak Island for all observable
thoracic and lumbar vertebrae (T1–L5). There was no
statistically significant difference in the occurrence of
compression among adults between these two collections.
When examining the thoracic and lumbar vertebral segments by sex, females at Golovin Bay (4.5%; n 5 442)
exhibited a significantly higher frequency of vertebral
compression than females at Nunivak (1.0%; n 5 203).
However, this difference in occurrence of compression
could be accounted for by the age distributions of the
two samples. No difference was noted between the males
of the two collections. Compression frequencies in both
samples are discussed in relation to the modes of transportation historically utilized by each community. Am J
Phys Anthropol 141:632–637, 2010. V 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
In modern clinical settings compression related trauma
to the vertebral column accounts for as much as 50% of
all vertebral injuries (Skyrme et al., 2005). Compressionrelated fractures are commonly associated with falls or
sharp vertical forces applied to the vertebral column,
such as may occur when riding in a sled or cart over
rough terrain (Merbs, 1989). In addition to the traumatic
event itself, there are a number of factors which may contribute to fractures and vertebral compression, such as
thinning of the bone associated with osteoporosis or a general weakening of the bone as a result of infection. Several diseases and infections affect the density of vertebral
bodies through the destruction of the trabecular bone
including tuberculosis, coccidioidomycosis, and blastomycosis; although the latter two are generally restricted to
more temperate regions (Ortner and Putschar, 1985; Aufderheide and Rodrı́guez-Martı́n, 1998).
Pathological conditions in the vertebral columns of
Native people from the arctic have been observed by
numerous researchers through the years (Stewart, 1932;
Merbs and Wilson, 1962; Lester and Shapiro, 1968; Gunness-Hey, 1982; Simper, 1986). Charles Merbs (1983)
studied vertebral compression as part of a larger analysis on the Sadlermiut from Southampton Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. Based upon Merbs’ (1983)
observations, it is expected that arctic populations utilizing different modes of transportation would exhibit different frequencies of vertebral compression fractures.
Specifically, Merbs (1983) hypothesized that, for groups
inhabiting similar geographic regions in the arctic and
subarctic, those utilizing sleds or toboggans for long distance travel should have a higher frequency of vertebral
compression than groups utilizing other modes of transport. This study compared the frequencies of compression-related vertebral change in archaeological context
using two Native Alaskan Eskimo skeletal collections;
one from Golovin Bay on the Seward Peninsula and the
other from Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea.
The people of the Golovin Bay area belong to the Central Yupik language group, although most of the rest of
the Seward Peninsula is populated by Iñupiaq speakers
(Ray, 1975). Likewise, Nunivak Island is the only major
Bering Sea island presently inhabited by a Central
Yupik speaking group (VanStone, 1989). While sharing
the same language and many similar cultural traditions
(Lantis, 1984), there were a number of key differences
related to subsistence and travel between the people of
Golovin Bay and Nunivak Island that may be reflected
in their skeletal remains. Previous work has demonstrated differences in musculoskeletal stress markers
related to subsistence activities between these two collections (Steen and Lane, 1998), but an association between
skeletal indicators and differences in modes of transportation has not been explored.
Limited ethnographic data exists for the native inhabitants of the Seward Peninsula, but Ray (1975, 1983) has
collected a variety of historical documents to reconstruct
the ethnohistory of the Bering Straits region. Both land
and sea resources were exploited by the inhabitants of
Golovin Bay, with resource availability likely dictating
C 2010
Grant sponsor: Smithsonian Institution Office of Repatriation.
*Correspondence to: Scott S. Legge, Anthropology Department,
Macalester College, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105.
Received 29 May 2009; accepted 25 September 2009
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.21220
Published online 20 January 2010 in Wiley InterScience
the settlement patterns during any particular season.
Ray (1964) classified the Golovin Bay area as falling into
the ‘‘Small Sea Mammal Pattern’’ of subsistence. This pattern included a diet consisting mainly of seal and beluga
supplemented by land mammals (Ray, 1964). Caribou was
the most important of the land mammals, ranging in the
area until the mid-nineteenth century (Koutsky, 1981).
Based on archaeological evidence and observations by
early explorers in the area, Ray (1975) suggested that
dogs were not heavily utilized in the Norton Sound region
prior to 1710. However, after that time dogs appeared to
play a major role in any movement or travel throughout
the Seward Peninsula (Ray, 1975, 1983; Renner, 1979).
Walking would also have been an important mode of
transportation, specifically during the summer months
when there was no snow cover. Travel by sea was undertaken in kayaks for one or two people and in umiaks
(large open-topped skin boats) when larger groups of people or amounts of goods were moved (Ray, 1975).
Much of the information regarding subsistence for
Nunivak comes from the detailed ethnography of Lantis
(1946). The main subsistence economy during her stay
was seal and sea lion hunting, and exploitation of ocean
resources was the primary activity. Undoubtedly, earlier
populations on the island also had access to caribou as
Pratt (2001) noted that caribou was a major subsistence
resource on Nunivak in the recent past. Utilizing a
combination of oral history, archaeological and historical
data, he determined that caribou was an important
resource on Nunivak Island during both the historic and
prehistoric periods (Pratt, 2001). Lantis (1946) believed
that caribou were hunted to extinction on the island at
some point between 1880 and 1920.
The residents of Nunivak Island utilized the kayak as
their main tool in hunting sea mammals (Lantis, 1984).
They apparently did not walk long distances, preferring
to use the kayak to travel to other portions of the island.
In addition, like at Golovin Bay, an umiak was used if
larger number of people or goods needed to be moved. If
travel over land was required, they tended to wait until
winter when the tundra was frozen and walking was
easier (Lantis, 1946). Furthermore, Lantis (1984) stated
that the inhabitants of Nunivak Island lagged behind
the rest of the Yupik speaking groups in western Alaska
with regard to their use of sled dogs. Rather than the
traditional harness configuration with the dogs in front
of the sled, she describes their use of small sleds that
are pushed by the Nunivakers and only occasionally
helped by the harnessing of dogs to the sides of the sled
(Lantis, 1984). Given both the similarities and differences
in the subsistence and travel noted above, the skeletal
materials from Golovin Bay and Nunivak Island, Alaska
provided an excellent opportunity to explore Merbs’
Golovin Bay is located on the south side of the Seward
Peninsula, along the northern margin of Norton Sound
(648 30@ north and 1638 west). Nunivak Island is located
64-km off the southwest coast of Alaska in the Bering
Sea (608 north and 1668 west). Skeletal materials from
both Golovin Bay and Nunivak Island were collected and
accessioned by the Smithsonian Institution between
1907 and 1931, primarily by Henry B. Collins and T.
Dale Stewart (Collins, 1927; Hrdlička, 1930; Mudar
et al., 1996; Speaker et al., 1996). While no accurate
dates for the ages of the collections are available, it was
noted that the majority of the remains from Nunivak
Island most likely dated to the late 19th and early 20th
centuries (Speaker et al., 1996). The Nunivak Island
remains, therefore, predate the work by Lantis (1946) on
the island by perhaps only a few decades. Stewart (1931)
stated that many of the remains collected on the Alaskan coast most likely represent villages occupied during
the early Russian or late pre-Russian periods, presumably referring to the late 18th and early 19th centuries,
overlapping well with the time period of sled dog usage
in the area described by Ray (1975). The collections were
requested for repatriation by the people of Golovin Bay
and Nunivak Island in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Prior
to reburial, both collections were sent to the University
of Alaska Fairbanks where skeletal analysis was performed, under the direction of G. Richard Scott, following the protocol of Urcid and Byrd (1995) (see Appendix
A in Speaker et al., 1996 and Appendix II in Mudar et
al., 1996). This protocol for skeletal analysis is simply a
tool for the inventory and description of human remains.
As such, it is limited in the recording potential for
numerous pathological conditions. Nevertheless, the data
collected using this protocol are such that they can be
useful for comparing collections using statistical analyses of frequencies of occurrence of various traits. The
comparative utility of this protocol was further enhanced
by continuity in the research team between collections.
There are at least 165 individuals in the Golovin Bay
collection and 139 individuals in the Nunivak Island collection. Most of those individuals do not include complete
vertebral columns, due, no doubt, to both the biases of
the collectors’ era and the lack of preservation of vertebrae in the archaeological record. There are more vertebrae in the Golovin Bay collection than the Nunivak
Island collection; nevertheless, there are many vertebrae
from both collections from which analysis is possible.
The number of vertebrae examined from the Golovin
Bay and Nunivak Island collections was 1,071 and 656,
respectively. Of the 1,071 from Golovin, 376 were attributable to adult males and 601 to adult females (Table 1).
In the Nunivak collection 266 vertebrae were from adult
males and 279 from adult females (Table 1). Vertebral
compression observed in either population was visually
noted and categorized following Urcid and Byrd (1995).
Vertebral body fractures were divided into several categories. Compression related-changes were categorized as
single end-plate depression without wedging, single endplate depression with wedging, wedged (congenital/idiopathic only), or biconcave bodies with or without wedging (possibly reflecting osteoporosis or osteomalacia).
There were no incidents of congenital wedging reported
for adults in either collection; therefore all instances of
compression, either with or without wedging, were classified as affected for compression trauma. This methodology lacks the standardized metric component utilized by
Merbs (1983) in his examination of vertebral compression in the Sadlermiut, but it does still allow for comparison of the two collections presented here. While noncompression-related fractures of the vertebrae, such as spondylolysis, were also observed and documented, they are
not included in this analysis.
Frequencies of compression were calculated, and an
attempt was made to characterize patterns of vertebral
compression in each collection by both sex and location
in the vertebral column. Only vertebrae attributable to
adults where sex determination was possible based upon
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
TABLE 1. Summary counts of observable adult vertebral
elements by age category and sex
Golovin males
20–34 years
35–49 years
501 years
Golovin females
20–34 years
35–49 years
501 years
Nunivak males
20–34 years
35–49 years
501 years
Nunivak females
20–34 years
35–49 years
501 years
Fig. 1. Anterior compression of the superior surface of the
body of T12 from a middle adult male (NMNH 352374) from
Golovin Bay.
TABLE 2. Summary of vertebral wedging at Golovin Bay
NMNH no.
Vertebra(e) involved
L1 and L2
T8 and T12
T11 and T12
T12 and L1
Unknown T and two unknown L
T8, T12, and L1
T6, T9, T10, T11, and T12
T12 and L1
cranial and postcranial indicators, were used for statistical analysis. Following Urcid and Byrd (1995) individuals were placed into appropriate age categories whenever
possible. These categories are: 20–34 years, 35–49 years,
and 50 or more years. As only one individual across the
two collections exhibited a compression fracture in the
cervical vertebrae, frequencies were compared between
the thoracic and lumbar segments only. Statistical analysis was complicated by the fragmentary nature of the
collection, as some individuals were represented by only
one or two vertebrae and others had complete columns.
When including only those individuals with thoracic or
lumbar vertebrae, numbers of individuals were reduced
from 165 to 50 in the Golovin collection and from 139 to
31 in the Nunivak collection. Therefore, analysis was
conducted by comparing occurrences of compression in
vertebral elements rather than individuals. Notwithstanding the fragmentary nature of most vertebral columns, the average number of thoracic and lumbar vertebrae observed per individual was similar for the two collections with 14 vertebrae per individual at Golovin and
13 vertebrae per individual at Nunivak. Statistical comparisons of compression frequencies, both within and
between the two skeletal collections, were performed
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Fig. 2. Compression-related wedging of T10–T12 from an
old adult female (NMNH 346028) from Golovin Bay.
using Fisher’s Exact test (Sokal and Rohlf, 1995) for
comparisons of two variables for presence or absence of
compression. This particular test was used rather than a
Chi-square test due to small sample sizes. When more
than two variables were compared, the G-test was used
with Williams’ correction for small sample sizes (Gadj).
In the Golovin Bay collection, compression-related
changes were observed on at least one vertebra in 14
individuals ranging in age from adolescent (10–14 years)
to old adult (50 1 years) (Table 2; Figs. 1 and 2). Eight
of the 14 showed compression on more than one
vertebra. Vertebrae involved included the mid-thoracic
through the upper lumbar regions. The frequency of
compression for all observable elements in the thoracic
and lumbar vertebrae (T1–L5) in the Golovin collection
was 3.6% (n 5 721). When broken down by sex, males
showed a frequency of 2.2% (n 5 279; T1–L5) and
females 4.5% (n 5 442; T1–L5). Although females exhibited a slightly higher frequency of compression, there
was no statistically significant difference between the
sexes (P 5 0.105). There was also no significant difference in the frequency of occurrence of compression in
the thoracic (3.3%; n 5 512) and lumbar (4.3%; n 5 209)
vertebral segments (P 5 0.514) across the sexes. A statistical analysis of the relationship between compression
and age for males in the Golovin sample could not be
performed as compression was confined to the middle
adult age category (35–49 years) only. For females at
Golovin, the occurrence of compression increased with
increasing age. Statistical analysis suggests that compression and age are not independent of one another
(P 5 0.003).
One individual, a middle adult (35–49 years) female
(NMNH 352377), exhibited both compression and noncompression-related trauma. This individual had a fracture through the ventral surface of the body of the
fourth sacral element with a small amount of new bone
formation in the area and a partially healed fracture on
the costal end of a mid-thoracic rib. Additionally, there
was wedging of L1 as well as a Schmorl’s node and spondylolysis on L4. From the remains it was unclear if there
was a relationship between the rib fracture and the
trauma noted in the lower back; however, there was
most likely a cause and effect relationship with the
lower back trauma and the other pathological conditions
noted in that region. The exact nature of that interaction
was unclear, but any trauma to the sacrum could also
have resulted in the vertebral compression fracture
Only six individuals in the Nunivak collection, all classified as adults, exhibited compression on one or more
vertebrae (Table 3). With the exception of one individual,
compressed vertebrae in this population were limited to
the lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. The frequency
of occurrence for all observable thoracic and lumbar vertebrae (T1–L5) in the Nunivak collection was 1.7% (n 5
403). As with the Golovin Bay collection, there was no
statistically significant difference between the sexes, with
frequencies of 2.5% (n 5 200; T1–L5) for males and 1.0%
(n 5 203; T1–L5) for females (P 5 0.282). When separated
by vertebral segment, the frequency of compression in the
lumbar region was 3.3% (n 5 120) as compared with a frequency of 1.1% (n 5 283) for the thoracic vertebrae.
Again, this difference was not statistically significant
(P 5 0.204). Like the males in the Golovin Bay sample,
statistical analysis of the relationship between compression and age could not be performed on the females in the
Nunivak sample as compression was again confined to
the middle adult age category. Evidence of compression in
males was seen in both the young adult and middle adult
age categories. However, there was no statistical difference (P 5 0.651) between the frequencies of compression
for those two age categories.
A middle adult (35–49 years) male (NMNH 339256)
from Nunivak was the only individual in the two collections to exhibit any vertebral compression in the cervical
vertebrae. This individual had compression of the fifth,
sixth, and seventh cervical vertebrae as well as the
TABLE 3. Summary of vertebral wedging at Nunivak Island
NMNH no.
Vertebra(e) involved
T11, T12, and L1
C5, C6, C7, and T12
L4 and L5
twelfth thoracic vertebra. Further, extreme osteoporosis
and degenerative arthritis was observed in all vertebral
elements present. It appeared that osteoporosis was the
major contributor to all vertebral compression in this
individual. Healed traumas to the frontal, the sternal
end of the right first rib, and right acromion process of
the scapula were also noted. It is not unusual for males
to exhibit osteoporosis, though females are generally
more affected (Stini, 1995). However, osteoporosis in
males most often occurs later in life (Stini, 1995), making this case of a middle adult male with such severe
osteoporosis unusual.
When comparing frequencies of compression at Golovin Bay and Nunivak Island, there was no significant
difference in overall occurrence among adults (P 5
0.096). Additionally, there was no statistically significant
difference in frequencies when compared by vertebral
segment for males and females combined (thoracic P 5
0.059, lumbar P 5 0.775). When separated by sex, however, females at Golovin exhibited a significantly higher
frequency of compression-related vertebral change in the
thoracic and lumbar vertebral segments combined than
females at Nunivak (P 5 0.019). However, because there
were no vertebrae from the oldest age category for
females from Nunivak, a further analysis comparing
compression in the combined young adult and middle
adult age categories was performed. This analysis indicated no statistical difference between females in the
two samples (P 5 0.344). No difference was noted
between males in the two collections (P 5 0.769) when
all age categories were combined. Again, there were very
few vertebrae in the oldest age category from Nunivak
for males as well. An analysis of the combined younger
age categories for males yielded similar results to those
of the females, with no statistical difference observed
(P 5 1.000).
To determine possible relationships between the
observed pathological conditions and the two groups it is
important to consider the subsistence and settlement
patterns in each area. As noted above, the modes of
travel by sea were similar for the two groups. However,
given the historically documented differences in modes
of transport for resource exploitation over land, it was
expected that there would be differences between the
two populations with respect to compression-related vertebral change. Yet, no significant difference was found
between the two collections overall.
Merbs (1983) observed a high frequency of vertebral
compression among the Sadlermiut of northern Canada
and attributed it to sledding or tobogganing over rough
surfaces. Furthermore, Merbs (1983) saw higher frequencies of compression in females among the Sadlermiut (females 12% and males 9%, for observable
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
vertebrae from T3 to L5). He hypothesized that females
exhibited a higher incidence of compression as a result
of riding in sleds over rough terrain more often than
males. Merbs’ frequencies are not directly comparable to
those presented here because of differential data collection methodologies. Nevertheless, as noted above, the
Nunivak and Golovin collections provided an opportunity
to test Merbs’ hypothesis on two groups where data was
collected in the same standardized manner.
Following Merbs’ (1983) observations, variations in
modes of travel could have resulted in differences in
compression frequencies between the females of the two
samples. Ethnographic accounts suggest that the primary difference in travel between the peoples of Golovin Bay and Nunivak Island was over land, with the
Nunivakers rarely walking across land or using dog
sleds. When dog sleds were used it was in a different
manner than that of the inhabitants Golovin Bay and
the rest of the Seward Peninsula (Lantis, 1946; Ray,
1975). While any number of traumatic events may be
related to vertebral compression fractures and wedging,
axial loading and flexion seem to be particularly important (Skyrme et al., 2005). These are precisely the
forces that one would encounter while riding in a
kayak or umiak over rough seas or while seated in a
dog sled. Further, a seated posture appears to increase
the amount of compressive stress on the lower back
when compared to standing (Callaghan and McGill,
2001). A seated posture also limits the shock absorption
capabilities of the skeletal muscles of the hips and legs
and places more axial loading on the vertebrae when
sharp compressive forces, such as those caused by
waves or rough terrain, are encountered. Umiaks were
most likely utilized in both locations for sea travel, and
both males and females would have been exposed to
risk of compression trauma associated with this travel
at sea. On the other hand, dog sled usage would have,
most likely, been more of a risk factor for the inhabitants of Golovin Bay. This would have been the case
particularly for women who ride seated in the sleds
while men ride on the runners or guide the sled from a
standing position.
Further support for differential stresses associated
with transportation can be found in data collected on frequencies and degrees of expression of musculoskeletal
stress markers (MSMs) for these same two populations
(Steen and Lane, 1998). One would expect differences in
the MSMs between the two groups to reflect potential
differences in modes of transportation. Larger differences in the MSMs of the lower extremities (used for walking for both sexes and balancing while standing on or
guiding a sled for males) than in the upper extremities
(used for paddling a kayak or umiak) would suggest a
greater disparity between land transport methods than
those on water. This is precisely what Steen and Lane
(1998) observed.
It is interesting to note that in the present study
males from both Golovin and Nunivak exhibited nearly
identical frequencies of compression-related vertebral
change (2.2 and 2.5%, respectively). Given that both populations relied in part on sea mammals for subsistence
and males were the primary hunters, it is possible that
the similar frequencies of vertebral compression
observed in males are related to the jarring stresses of
kayaks and umiaks on rough seas. As with the Sadlermiut, females in the skeletal collection from Golovin Bay
exhibited higher frequencies of compression-related
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
changes than males; although the difference was not
statistically significant. There was a statistical difference
between the frequencies of vertebral compression
observed for females overall from Golovin and Nunivak
Island. However, this difference can be accounted for by
the higher numbers of females in the old age category at
Golovin, suggesting that age-related changes in bone
density may be a greater contributing factor for vertebral compression than transportation differences. At
issue here is the nature of the demographic distribution
of the sample itself. The Nunivak sample is clearly not
representative of the expected overall demographic distribution of a normal population, with no vertebrae from
old adult females and only four vertebrae from old adult
males. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the vertebral compression observed at Golovin is the result of a
combination of age-related bone changes and mechanical
stresses. With their usage of dog-sleds for travel over
land, in addition to other vertebral stresses in common
with the people of Nunivak Island, the inhabitants of
Golovin Bay would have been subjected to more longterm vertebral compression stresses. Unfortunately, the
Nunivak sample does not allow for the complete testing
of this hypothesis. Further, the nonmetric nature of the
data may not allow for observation of very subtle vertebral compression changes that might otherwise be noted.
While this study could not clearly link mode of transportation to vertebral trauma, a further examination of
osteoarthritis of the joints associated with shock absorption of axial loading stresses, as one anonymous review
noted, might elucidate the affects of mode of transportation on the skeleton.
Travel by sled dog in the Arctic is no longer the preferred mode of transportation, and many groups have
adopted the use of snowmobiles (Pelto, 1973; Shephard
and Rode, 1996). However, snowmobile usage, like travel
by dog sled, appears to play a major role in vertebral
trauma (Roberts et al., 1971). The result is a condition
characterized by compression fractures known as ‘‘snowmobiler’s back’’ (Capasso et al., 1999). While the means
of transport has changed, it is expected that compression-related vertebral trauma will still be observed in
groups that have transitioned from dog sleds to snowmobiles. However, the distribution within these groups
would shift from the pattern observed in the late prehistoric and early historic collections examined here. While
both males and females use snowmobiles for winter
transportation, it is expected that males, who use the
snowmobiles more often in long distance traveling for
hunting, should exhibit a higher frequency of trauma
than females. Further study is necessary to address
questions regarding other possible traumatic impacts on
the human skeleton of both past and present modes of
travel in the Arctic, as well as the patterning of trauma
associated with gender roles in the changing arctic
Native communities.
The author thanks the people of Golovin Bay and Nunivak Island for allowing this research to be conducted at
the University of Alaska. Skeletal analysis assistance was
provided by Dr. G. Richard Scott, Steven R. Street, Dr.
Susan Steen, Robert Lane, and C. Ryan Colby. Photos
were provided courtesy of Dr. G. Richard Scott. The author
also thanks Dr. Michelle Epp for editorial assistance.
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trauma, vertebrate, compression, brief, communication, alaska, sledding, transportation, dog, eskimo
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