An essential part of bioarchaeology is the study of diet and nutrition and its effects on the general health of a person. Interpretation of nutritional and metabolic disease related pathologies often provide additional insight into the daily social and cultural practices of people. It is therefore also an essential part of understanding differences amongst past populations from archaeological contexts and provides an alternative means for cross referencing historical accounts.
In this study the skeletal remains of 36 Chinese indentured mine labourers, who worked and died on the Witwatersrand mines during the period AD 1904-1910, were assessed for any signs of metabolic or nutritionally related signs of disease. Historical information suggests that these indentured Chinese labourers came from poverty stricken communities in China where disease and malnutrition were often encountered. Once in South Africa they were again subjected to the harsh living and working conditions associated with mining. Analyses suggest that all 36 individuals were males between the ages of 16 and 45 years, with the majority being of young adult age (20-34 years). Pathology that could be observed included a high prevalence of nutrition-related changes and linear enamel hypoplasia which suggests that the Chinese miners had been subjected to long periods of malnutrition and illness throughout childhood continuing into adulthood. Nevertheless, a large proportion of lesions associated with malnutrition showed some degree of healing. A high frequency of traumatic lesions, specifically peri-mortem fractures, was observed and may have contributed to the death of many of the Chinese miners. It therefore seems that even though the healing of pathological lesions associated with malnutrition indicated a period of improved nutritional intake, possibly during their time on the Witwatersrand mines, the high prevalence of peri-mortem fractures attests to the hazardous working conditions associated with deep-level mining.
In order to aid in the interpretation of skeletal pathology associated with metabolic and nutritional diseases non-specific signs of disease observed in a cadaver skeletal sample with known causes of death (related to specific metabolic or nutritional diseases) were compared to pathology observed in the Chinese miners. This provided pathological patterns which enabled a better interpretation of the pathology observed in the Chinese skeletal remains.