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Paleopathology (spelled palaeopathology in the UK) is the study of ancient diseases. It is useful in understanding the past history of diseases, and uses this understanding to predict its course in the future.

A paleopathologist is one who studies old and diseased things, specifically, diseases of human and animal as inferred from recent or fossilized skeletal remains.


History of Paleopathology

From the Renaissance to the mid nineteenth century, there was increasing reference to ancient disease, initially within prehistoric animals although later the importance of studying the antiquity of human disease began to be emphasised. The true genesis of the field of human palaeopathology is generally considered to occur between the mid nineteenth century and World War I when a number of pioneering physicians and anthropologists clarified the medical nature of ancient skeletal pathologies. This work was consolidated between the world wars with methods such as radiology, histology and serology being applied more frequently, improving diagnosis and accuracy with the introduction of statistical analysis. It was at this point that palaeopathology can truly be considered to have become a scientific discipline. [1]

After World War II palaeopathology began to be viewed in a different way: as an important tool for the understanding of past populations, and it was at this stage that the discipline began to be related to epidemiology and demography. The study of DNA also began to add new information to what was already known about ancient disease. [1]

Human Paleopathology

Human Osteopathology is classified into several general groups:

Whilst traumatic injuries such as broken and malformed bones can be easy to spot, evidence of other conditions, for example infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis, can also be found in bones. Arthropathies, that is joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and gout, are also not uncommon.

Archaeologists use paleopathology as one of their main tools for understanding the lives of ancient peoples. For example, cranial deformation is evident in the skulls of the Maya, showing that they considered a person beautiful if they had a straight line connecting their nose with their forehead. Another pathology common to Mesoamerica is seen in women. Bone spurs and other deformities in the knees, toes, and backs of women show that their days spent grinding maize to make flour takes its toll on their bodies. Also, evidence for trepanation, or drilling holes in the skull to relieve excess pressure, is also common. Skulls with multiple holes show that some patients survived this procedure many times, because the bone has begun to knit back together.

Animal Paleopathology

In archaeology, the study of the diseases of animals has not been as wide and extensive as those of humans. Baker and Brothwell’s seminal work [2] was published in 1980 and is still considered a classic text, being frequently referred to within the discipline. However, it should be noted that this position of importance has largely come about, not because of its comprehensive coverage, but because there has been no real alternative. Most palaeopathological literature is to be found in periodicals or compiled publications of conference papers. [3] No synthesis of the research in the field as a whole has been attempted for the last twenty-five years. The study of dinosaur paleopathology has undergone a resurgence in the past two decades. An extensive bibliography of dinosaur paleopathology was released in 2002[4]

Recent Theories Dependent Upon Paleopathological Data

One paper, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race"[5] and one book, "Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture"[6], have been instrumental in bringing about a change in the way prehistoric human history is understood, away from uninformed modernist perceptions skewed by human urban populations' rough times in the dark ages, and more towards an informed and enlightened comprehension of the relative luxury, abundance, and ease of life in pre-agricultural times. One strong proponent of the new conclusions becoming more widely taught and accepted has been John Zerzan, considered by many to be only degrees from an "ecoterrorist", due to his essays bringing to light widespread misinformation in the mainstream understanding of prehistory, and casting a shadow on the relatively recent human "success" of agriculture, evidently causing many readers of his essays to feel something they've chosen to describe as "terror". A few recent books, such as the more popular "Guns, Germs, and Steel"[7], citing paleopathological data, have elicited similar reactions from people.


  1. ^ a b Aufderheide, A.C and Rodríguez-Martín, C. 1998. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Baker, J, and Brothwell, D. 1980. Animal Diseases in Archaeology. London: Academic Press.
  3. ^ Davies, J., Fabis, M., Mainland, I., Richards, M. and Thomas, R. 2005. Diet and Health in Past Animal Populations: Current Research and Future Directions. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
  4. ^ Tanke, D.H., and Rothschild, B.M. 2002. Dinosores: An Annotated Bibliography of Dinosaur Palaeopathology and Related Topics–1838-2001. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin, 20:1-96+iv.
  5. ^ Diamond, J. 1987. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover Magazine: pp. 64-66
  6. ^ Cohen, Mark N. and George J, Armelagos (Eds.). 1984. Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture Orlando, FL: Academic Press
  7. ^ Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03891-2
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Paleopathology". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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