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Stable C and N isotope analysis of hair suggest undernourishment as a factor in the death of a mummified girl from late 19th century San Francisco, CA

  • Author(s): Eerkens, JW
  • Hull, B
  • Goodman, J
  • Evoy, A
  • Kapp, JD
  • Hussain, S
  • Green, RE
  • et al.
Abstract

© 2017 Eerkens et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. The chance discovery of a 1.5–3.5 years old mummified girl presents a unique opportunity to further our understanding of health and disease among children in 19th Century San Francisco. This study focuses on carbon and nitrogen stable isotope signatures in serial samples of hair that cover the last 14 months of her life. Results suggest an initial omnivorous diet with little input from marine resources or C4 plants. Around six months before death δ15N starts a steady increase, with a noticeable acceleration just two months before she died. The magnitude of δ15N change, +1.5‰ in total, is consistent with severe undernourishment or starvation. Cemetery records from this time period in San Francisco indicate high rates of infant and child mortality, mainly due to bacterial-borne infectious diseases, about two orders of magnitude higher than today. Taken together, we hypothesize that the girl died after a prolonged battle with such an illness. Results highlight the tremendous impacts that modern sanitation and medicine have had since the 1800s on human health and lifespan in the United States.

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