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'Occupational markers' provide clues to a life, new book reveals

Cornell University's forensic anthropologists know what you did last summer — or they would if they could examine your skeleton for the distinctive marks caused by jobs and recreational pursuits.

Dog-walker's elbow, cowboy thumb, snowmobiler's back and miner's knee are among the nearly 150 conditions described in a new book, Atlas of Occupational Markers on Human Remains (Edigrafital SpA-S. Atto, Teramo, Italy, 1999) by Luigi Capasso, Kenneth A.R. Kennedy and Cynthia A. Wilczak. Capasso is the head of Italy's National Survey of Anthropology and Paleopathology Archaeological Museum. Kennedy is a forensic anthropologist and professor of ecology at Cornell University. Wilczak was a doctoral student in Kennedy's laboratory when the book was written and is now an assistant professor at Maryland's Villa Julie College.

The book should be of principal interest to physical anthropologists, human paleontologists and medical examiners, Kennedy says. But in the age of ergonomic correctness, anyone concerned with life's stresses on the body will find something to worry about.

"Consider bilateral osteoarthritis of the acromioclavicular joints, for example. This marker was first described among Inuit (Eskimo) men who constantly elevate their arms for harpoon-throwing and kayak-paddling," Kennedy reports. "You might say, 'I don't hunt seals so arthritis in the shoulder is not my problem.' And it's not -- unless you paddle a canoe or kayak." Other contributing activities to this type of osteoarthritis, according to the book, include lifting heavy rocks and throwing an opponent over one shoulder during wrestling matches.

While many of the markers in bone, teeth and hair have abstruse clinical names, some are more easily understood by the average person on the street. Some are actually caused by the street or other unyielding surfaces:

  • Policeman's Heel, from walking on hard pavement, produces bursitis and bony spurs in several locations. The condition is also called Floorwalker's Foot, World's Fair Heels and Exposition Heels.
  • Shoemaker's Ribs have cup-shaped cavities and thickening, the result of general strain throughout the chest area. It is found in skeletons of 19th century English shoemakers who held boot lasts against their breastbones
  • Fruit-picker's Cervical Spine is arthritic lipping of vertebrae in the neck, the result of viewing fruit above the head during harvest. This condition was first noted among Florida's citrus fruit-pickers.
  • Snowmobiler's Back shows up as compression fractures in vertebrae of the lower back and can affect anyone traveling over rough terrain in vehicles with poor shock-absorbing capabilities, according to the book's authors. Besides snowmobile riders, the condition also has been observed in parachute jumpers, tobogganers and even in the skeletal remains of medieval Germans who rode in wooden-wheeled carts.
  • Le Trou de Pipe (Pipe Smoker's Teeth) is mechanical wear on the upper and lower central incisors. The marker results not only from pipe-smoking but also from occupations that require holding a hard object in the front of the mouth: policemen with whistles, wind instrument musicians and trumpeters, glass blowers, and draftsmen and teachers who habitually hold a pencil in their teeth.
  • Hooker's Elbow. No, not that kind of hooker. This inflammation, called lateral epicondylitis, afflicts ice fishers who repeatedly jerk their arms upward to pull fish through holes in the ice. It was first described in Arctic-dwelling Eskimos by anthropologists who also identified Musher's Knee.

Dog-walker's Elbow, another form of lateral epicondylitis of the joint, comes from walking a dog on a short leash when the animal is not trained to heel.

Kennedy is sometimes asked whether a forensic anthropologist in the future will be able to tell, by examining Kennedy's skeleton, that it belonged to a college professor. "You mean the abnormally small brain?" he jokes.

Not really, but the professor's skeleton should bear evidence of a lifetime of violin-playing, he says. And then there's that old jogging injury.

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