The study of human remains in terms of health and disease of past populations is of
immense interest to physical anthropologists and bioarchaeologists. One method utilised for
such an assessment is fluctuating asymmetry. Fluctuating asymmetry refers to the
morphological inequality in bilateral anatomical structures and is considered an indicator of
developmental stress. The purpose of this study was to assess and compare the magnitude of
skeletal and dental fluctuating asymmetry between and within two populations and to
correlate these findings with three other markers of skeletal stress, namely, enamel
hypoplasia, cribra orbitalia/porotic hyperostosis and subperiosteal bone reactions. The sample
comprised of two urban archaeological samples housed at the University of Amsterdam, the
Grote Kerk sample (n=171), representing the general population of the 18th to early 19th
century, and the psychiatric hospital sample from Meerenberg (n=106) of the 19th to early
20th century. Left and right measurements were recorded from various traits of the cranium,
mandible, humerus, radius, femur, tibia and dentition, from which the fluctuating asymmetry
values were calculated.
No statistically significant differences between the sexes or age categories were
documented, although skeletal fluctuating asymmetry was slightly greater in adults. The
Grote Kerk exhibited significantly greater frequencies of subperiosteal bone reactions, while
the Meerenberg population exhibited greater frequencies of enamel hypoplasia. Individuals
who exhibited one of the three pathological lesions were more asymmetrical than individuals
without lesions. No significant differences existed in the level of asymmetry between the two
populations. However, the Meerenberg population exhibited slightly greater asymmetry in the
facial and vault region of the cranium, and the Grote Kerk population in the long bone
lengths. Based on the frequencies and aetiologies of the pathological lesions, it is suggested
that the two populations were probably subjected to similar levels of stress, even though the
source, timing and duration of stress might have been different.
Despite the similar levels of stress, the Meerenberg population was expected to
exhibit increased levels of fluctuating asymmetry due to the premise that individuals with
mental disorders or deficiencies are developmentally less stable than the mentally healthy.
Therefore, the possibility should also be considered that fluctuating asymmetry is not a highly
sensitive indicator of developmental stress.