Introduction to Paleopathology

Paleopathology: The Study of Ancient Diseases

Paleopathology is the study of disease in ancient remains. It attempts to understand the cause of ancient diseases, and how they spread. This is particularly useful to understanding the origins, spread, and prevalence of today’s infectious diseases. Included in the field research are theories on how humans contribute to the spread of diseases and how these diseases are overcome. Paleopathologists are also responsible for determining sources of diseases for human populations.

To that effect paleopathology combines a number of different scientific disciplines including historical archeology, paleontology, epidemiology, histology, serology, and demography and genealogy.

A Brief History of Paleopathology

Paleopathology traces its roots back to Renaissance Europe where German naturalists were eagerly dissecting the remains of Egyptian mummies in the 15th century. Comparisons where made between the remains of these ancient humans and those of modern human cadavers. These early vivisectionists were able to detect the existence of arthritis in ancient cadavers by looking at bone striations and lesions. Later in the 17th century scientists would discover unique marks left on human bones as the result of different types of fever.

Early paleopathology did not focus exclusively on humans, there was much emphasis on the prehistoric fossil record as well. Thomas Jefferson and his groundbreaking anthropological study “Notes on Virginia” might be considered the premier paleopathologist of the Renaissance and Enlightenment period. Jefferson’s interest in fossils and particular the fossil records of the Americas was world-renowned.

As an independent field of research paleopathology wasn’t recognized until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when physicians studying disease began to clarify and expand data found in the preceding centuries. Groundbreaking techniques from radiology and histology were applied, lending legitimacy to what was once considered an amateur field of study. By the end of World War II, a view had emerged that paleopathology could be used to better understand past populations and their behaviors. In this vein, epidemiological techniques and demographic research became key to the field’s research.

Scientific Methods of Paleopathology

Modern paleopathologists use a variety of methods in order to collect data and form hypotheses about the diseases that afflicted human populations of the past.

Forensic Anthropology in Paleopathology – The study of ancient pathology is no longer limited to picking apart ancient corpses. Modern scientific analysis allows for the collection of bone, hair, and blood samples to be analyzed for disease, various chemical compounds, and genetic abnormalities. Modern paleopathology might be likened to a laboratory scene out of CSI.

Demography in Paleopathology – An astounding amount of information can be determined about individual human remains – including height, weight, sex, diet, and cause of death. Because of this, researchers are often able to make inferences about entire populations, determining whether they were hunter-gathers or horticulturists. Evidence of ancient medicinal practices has been uncovered as well.

Comparison between the Historical and Biological Records – Paleopathology has its limitations. Because skeletal fragments are the single most recovered type of human remains, it is often difficult to determine the exact disease. Therefore, paleopathologists often use the historical record – written documentation, eye witness accounts, historical narratives – to trace the spread and existence of disease throughout history. Often through the historical record, they are able to infer biological facts about the disease that modern testing cannot determine.

Paleopathology in the 21st Century

Once a backwater cousin to other anthropological disciplines, paleopathology has become premier science in understanding the development and behavior of ancient human society. While the field continues to add to scientists’ understanding of the development and evolution of disease throughout human history, it also teaching lessons about how to effectively limit spread of modern pandemics like AIDs and swine flu.