The causes of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia: a reappraisal of the iron-deficiency-anemia hypothesis

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2009 Jun;139(2):109-25. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21031.


Porosities in the outer table of the cranial vault (porotic hyperostosis) and orbital roof (cribra orbitalia) are among the most frequent pathological lesions seen in ancient human skeletal collections. Since the 1950s, chronic iron-deficiency anemia has been widely accepted as the probable cause of both conditions. Based on this proposed etiology, bioarchaeologists use the prevalence of these conditions to infer living conditions conducive to dietary iron deficiency, iron malabsorption, and iron loss from both diarrheal disease and intestinal parasites in earlier human populations. This iron-deficiency-anemia hypothesis is inconsistent with recent hematological research that shows iron deficiency per se cannot sustain the massive red blood cell production that causes the marrow expansion responsible for these lesions. Several lines of evidence suggest that the accelerated loss and compensatory over-production of red blood cells seen in hemolytic and megaloblastic anemias is the most likely proximate cause of porotic hyperostosis. Although cranial vault and orbital roof porosities are sometimes conflated under the term porotic hyperostosis, paleopathological and clinical evidence suggests they often have different etiologies. Reconsidering the etiology of these skeletal conditions has important implications for current interpretations of malnutrition and infectious disease in earlier human populations.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Anemia / complications*
  • Archaeology
  • Fossils*
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Hyperostosis / etiology*
  • Hyperostosis / pathology
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Orbit / pathology*
  • Paleopathology / methods*
  • Porosity
  • Skull / pathology*