Modern Research and Historical Interpretations

Current medical knowledge is continually shifting and expanding. The news reports daily on the new findings from possible solutions for cancer to which new superfood is important to integrate into our diet. While some of us may be getting a little tired of the constant dialogue (is red wine beneficial or not, is the microwave going to stunt my growth, etc.) it is important that we stay on top of the research in these modern fields.

Vitamin D has been viewed as important to healthy development in humans since the 1920’s, and earlier the beneficial effects of sunlight and fish oil (both providers of vitamin D) were known among medical professionals. Recent research funded by the Wellcome Trust and various medical research groups (2010) has shown that it is even more important than originally assumed. A lack of vitamin D causes lowered intake of potassium and calcium by the intestines, and in severe cases can lead to bone breakdown and restricted mental development in children. This study by Ramagopalan et al. (2010) found that Vitamin D effects 229 genes, including those related to auto-immune disease such as multiple sclerosis, Chron’s disease, various cancers like leukemia, and diabetes. It is most important for Vitamin D to be at normal levels for pregnant women and newborns. Vitamin D deficiency in infants can be fatal if not treated, and even if the child survives they will be pre-disposed to numerous physically and mentally disabling conditions.

So the question becomes, why is it important for us? For the bioarchaeologist, rickets and vitamin D deficiencies can be interpreted from the skeletal remains from bending deformities, swelling of the distal ends of long bones, and expansion of the shafts of long bones. Therefore, when a deficiency is diagnosed it is necessary to know what this would mean for the living individual. Knowing that the disease can lead to numerous conditions affects our interpretations of quality of life in the past. Infant mortality may be differently interpreted if the overall population in question has a high rate of Vitamin D deficiency. Adult life is also affected as propensity towards infection, arthritis and disease in adulthood can occur if they were deficient as a child.

For bioarchaeology, the need to read modern medical research is apparent- it strengthens our interpretations of the past. So for the more general archaeological academics, what good does this research do for you? Knowledge of dress and architecture are extremely important for understanding the cause for vitamin D deficiencies. The full coverage dress of the 17th century in London, as well as the tall buildings, narrow streets and pollution, all affect the ability for the people to synthesize vitamin D. Access to fish products and overall environment are also important factors that can be deduced through archaeological research. Knowing that Vitamin D deficiencies can lead to a wide variety of diseases is also important in interpretations of working environments and medical contexts. With the rise of industrialism in the 18th century it is important that we interpret it within the appropriate context. If the working class is suffering from severe vitamin D deficiencies it may change our perspective on the context of the factory itself.

The more we know the better we can interpret what is unknown.

Works Cited

Wellcome Trust (2010, August 24). Vitamin D found to influence over 200 genes, highlighting links to disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2010/08/100823172327.htm

Ramagopalan SV, Heger A, Berlanga AJ, Maugeri NJ, Lincoln MR, Burrell A, Handunnetthi L, Handel AE, Disanto G, Orton S, Watson CT, Morahan JM, Giovannoni G, Ponting CP, Ebers GC, Knight JC. 2010. A ChIP-seq-defined genome-wide map of vitamin D receptor binding: Associations with disease and evolution. In Genome Research, 2010

Mary Ann Liebert, Inc./Genetic Engineering News (2008, December 29). Vitamin D Deficiency In Infants And Nursing Mothers Carries Long-term Disease Risks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/12/081216161058.htm

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