Academic journal article Antiquity

Anaemia (Thalassaemia) in the Middle Euphrates Valley of Syria in the Second-Fourth Centuries AD?

Academic journal article Antiquity

Anaemia (Thalassaemia) in the Middle Euphrates Valley of Syria in the Second-Fourth Centuries AD?

Article excerpt


Pathological analyses can be used to reveal a broader picture of the health and existence of a population. The unusual occurrence of diseases in certain areas is particularly interesting, as they may reflect processes of migration and a diffusion of genes. Anaemia is rarely reported in the archaeological material from the Middle Euphrates Valley (more precisely, the Syrian lower Euphrates) (Tomczyk 2013). Defined as a pathological deficiency in haemoglobin, anaemia can be either genetic (hereditary) or acquired. The most common hereditary forms of anaemia are sickle cell anaemia (sicklemia) and thalassaemia (of which there are several variations) (Walker et al. 2009).

Acquired forms of anaemia are caused by blood loss and nutritional deficiency, including chronic gastrointestinal infections (Pasvol & Abdalla 1999). Numerous authors stress that the best indicators for haematopoietic diseases are cribra orbitalia (CO)--pitting on the superior wall of the orbit; it is thought to be the result of an expansion in haematopoietic bone marrow--and porotic hyperostosis (PH)--pitting on the outer table of the frontal and/or parietal bones; the bones are thickened by the expanded diploic layer and the outer table overlying the lesion is reabsorbed completely (Keenleyside & Panayotova 2006; Walker etal. 2009). Although the association between these two types of lesion is not very strong (in many skeletal collections, CO is the more common type, while in others, PH predominates), their presence in skeletal material is often used to identify cases of anaemia (e.g. Salvadei et al. 2001; Walker et al. 2009).

There is some controversy regarding the differential diagnosis of anaemia in archaeological materials without considering other variables such as biochemistry (Ortner & Putschar 1985). There are, however, important publications that identify the specific features of different forms of anaemia: Hershkovitz et al. (1997) proposed the osteological list of changes associated with diseases of the hematopoietic system. This means that various types of anaemia may be recognised following the meticulous examination of bones.

Recent analysis of cranial abnormalities in an individual from the Middle Euphrates Valley allows us to trace the presence of thalassaemia in this region during the late Roman period. The geographic position of the Middle Euphrates Valley made this region a 'bridge' that connected southern Mesopotamia with western Syria. This means that the basis of the livelihood of the local population was not restricted to agriculture and grazing, but included the control of trade and military routes (Postgate 1992). It is therefore possible that the examined individual was not a native of this area, a hypothesis made testable through molecular analysis.

Archaeological context

Tell Masaikh is an archaeological site on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, approximately 6km upstream from the modern Tell Ashara (Figure 1). It was first mentioned as Kar-Ashurnasirpal (Assurnasirpal's Quay; see Masetti-Rouault 2008, 2010) in Assurnasirpal II's inscription (yearbook) (883-859 BC), a powerful Assyrian king who conquered Syria. In this inscription, we can read the following: "I founded two cities on the Euphrates, one on this bank of the Euphrates [which] I called Kar-Ashurnasirpal [and] one on the other bank of the Euphrates [which] I called Nebarti-Assur" (Grayson 1991: 216). Insufficient information currently exists regarding the dating of the final Assyrian presence at Tell Masaikh (Masetti-Rouault 2010). It is known, however, that by the time of the decline of antiquity, when the border between the Roman Empire and the Parthian State (later the state of the Sassanids) ran through northern Mesopotamia, Tell Masaikh was re-occupied (Weiss 1991). In the thirteenth century, a Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan caused the near total annihilation of the local population. …

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