Thoracic Skeletal Morphology and High-Altitude Hypoxia in Andean Prehistory

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American Journal of Physical Anthropology


Living humans from the highland Andes exhibit antero‐posteriorly and medio‐laterally enlarged chests in response to high‐altitude hypoxia. This study hypothesizes that morphological responses to high‐altitude hypoxia should also be evident in pre‐Contact Andean groups. Thoracic skeletal morphology in four groups of human skeletons (N = 347) are compared: two groups from coastal regions (Ancón, Peru, n = 79 and Arica, Chile, n = 123) and two groups from high altitudes (San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, n = 102 and Machu Picchu and Cuzco, Peru, n = 43). Osteometric variables that represent proportions of chest width and depth include sternal and clavicular lengths and breadths and rib length, curvature, and area. Each variable was measured relative to body size, transformed into logarithmic indices, and compared across sex‐specific groups using ANOVA and Tukey multiple comparison tests. Atacama highlanders have the largest sternal and clavicular proportions and ribs with the greatest area and least amount of curvature, features that suggest an antero‐posteriorly deep and mediolaterally wide thoracic skeleton. Ancón lowlanders exhibit proportions indicating narrower and shallower chests. Machu Picchu and Cuzco males cluster with the other highland group in rib curvature and area at the superior levels of the thorax, whereas chest proportions in Machu Picchu and Cuzco females resemble those of lowlanders. The variation in Machu Picchu and Cuzco males and females is interpreted as the result of population migrations. The presence of morphological traits indicative of enlarged chests in some highland individuals suggests that high‐altitude hypoxia was an environmental stressor shaping the biology of highland Andean groups during the pre‐Contact period.


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