Could the Health Decline of Prehistoric California Indians Be Related to Exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) from Natural Bitumen?

By Warmlander, Sebastian K. T. S.; Sholts, Sabrina B. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Could the Health Decline of Prehistoric California Indians Be Related to Exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) from Natural Bitumen?


Warmlander, Sebastian K. T. S., Sholts, Sabrina B., Erlandson, Jon M., Gjerdrum, Thor, Westerholm, Roger, Environmental Health Perspectives


BACKGROUND: The negative health effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are well established for modern human populations but have so far not been studied in prehistoric contexts. PAHs are the main component of fossil bitumen, a naturally occurring material used by past societies such as die Chumash Indians in California as an adhesive, as a waterproofing agent, and for medicinal purposes. The rich archaeological and ethnohistoric record of the coastal Chumash suggests that they were exposed to multiple uptake pathways of bituminous PAHs, including direct contact, fume inhalation, and oral uptake from contaminated water and seafood.

OBJECTIVES: We investigated the possibility that PAHs from natural bitumen compromised the health of the prehistoric Chumash Indians in California.

CONCLUSIONS: Exposure of the ancient Chumash Indians to toxic PAHs appears to have gradually increased across a period of 7,500 years because of an increased use of bitumen in the Chumash technology, together with a dietary shift toward PAH-contaminated marine food. Skeletal analysis indicates a concurrent population health decline that may be related to PAH uptake. However, establishing such a connection is virtually impossible without knowing the actual exposure levels experienced by these populations. Future methodological research may provide techniques for determining PAH levels in ancient skeletal material, which would open new avenues for research on the health of prehistoric populations and on the long-term effects of human PAH exposure.

KEY WORDS: bioaccumulation, biomarkers exposure, bone and cartilage, cultural practices, diet and nutrition, environmental epidemiology, indigenous peoples, molecular epidemiology, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, population health. Environ Health Perspect 119:1203--1207 (2011). http:// dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1103478 [Online 19 May 2011]

In the modern world, our environment abounds in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) derived mainly from fossil fuels formed by the anaerobic decomposition of dead organisms over millions of years. The lipophilic PAHs, which chemically consist of two or more condensed aromatic benzene rings and occur in a large number of isomers, are readily taken up by the human body and distributed to different organs and tissues, including the fetus. Significant health problems such as cancer, altered hormone levels, damage to internal organs including the nervous system, and deficiencies in important nutrients such as vitamin A have been associated with exposure to liquid and atmospheric PAHs (Bostrom et al. 2002; Li et al. 2003; Mastrangelo et al. 1996; Westerholm et al. 1988, 2001). Such exposure can originate from gasoline and diesel combustion, fossil fuel processing, road paving, roofing, and tobacco smoking. PAH exposure has also been associated with reproductive and developmental impairments, including reduced birth length and head circumference in children of women exposed to PAHs during pregnancy (Choi et al. 2006; Petera et al. 1998; Polahska et al. 2010). Occasionally, extraordinary events such as major oil spills result in drastic PAH exposute, which may have severe consequences for human and animal life (Hickenetal. 2011; Wells et al. 1995).

In the ancient world, our ancestors encountered PAHs mostly in the form of fossil bitumen, or asphaltum. Fossil bitumen occurs in geological strata all over the planet. In petroleum-rich areas such as California, Mexico, and the Near East, certain geological formations allow bitumen to seep spontaneously to the surface of the eatth. Because of its adhesive and watet-repellent properties, bitumen was collected from natural seeps by early human populations and used for a variety of purposes such as sealant for containers and watercraft, as glue for fixing arrowheads and spear points to their shafts, as mortar for constructing roads and houses, and as mastic in the manufacture of art objects such as the famous Sumerian "Standard of Ur" (Connan 1999; Wendt and Lu 2006).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Could the Health Decline of Prehistoric California Indians Be Related to Exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) from Natural Bitumen?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?