The scientific study of ancient disease, which has historical and medical implications for human, animal, and plant evolution, began in the late nineteenth century. The discipline, known as paleopathology, is today closely allied with archaeology and physical anthropology. Together, those two disciplines provide paleopathologists with the material for their research. Paleopathology's interdisciplinary nature and broad scope place most modern research in universities and medical schools.

According to Calvin Wells, a leader of the field in Europe, one of the main principles of paleopathology is the premise that humans and animals do not exist in isolation from their surroundings: the pattern of disease or injury that affects them is an integral part of that environment. Disease is the manifestation of the stress and strain to which they are exposed. Disease is reflected in their genetic inheritance, the climate in which they lived, the soil that gave them sustenance, and the other animals and plants with which they shared their world. It is influenced by their daily occupations, dietary habits, choice of dwellings, social structure, and even their folklore and mythology (Zias, 1989).

In the Near East, from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1930s, descriptive studies of Egyptian mummies were the prime concern of paleopathologists. Although much of the research appearing in journals is still descriptive, several scholarly attempts (e.g., Cockburn, 1963; Manchester, 1983) to provide a well-formulated theoretical/historical background for the discipline are providing direction for future research. Research today is rapidly moving in the direction of biomolecular studies of ancient disease including the extraction of DNA and polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

The well-established literary tradition in the Near East provides a wealth of information on disease and medical practices spanning five thousand years. While early Assyrian and Egyptian texts deal specifically with the problem of disease and medical practices, perhaps the greatest body of knowledge comes from the Hebrew scriptural writings. Although not intended as medical texts, they are a source of medical practices and folk beliefs.

The scientific value of paleopathology lies in its diachronic approach to illness, which enables researchers to perceive chronic diseases, such as leprosy and tuberculosis, over a long period of time. The paleopathologist can thus determine whether a disease has evolved or changed its pattern. Certain diseases, such as arteriosclerosis, once regarded as the result of diet and modern living conditions, have been found in autopsies performed on Egyptian mummies (Sandison, 1980) calling into question many modern concepts about the etiology of heart disease.

The skeletal remains of all people in all periods are a very valuable scientific-medical resource for tracing the biological history of the human race. This material needs to be studied to understand better our ancestors, our health, and our world.

[See also Paleobotany; Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction; Paleozoology; and Skeletal Analysis.]

Bibliography

  • Cockburn, Aidan. The Evolution and Eradication of Infectious Diseases. Baltimore, 1963. Authoritative and comprehensive work presenting diseases in theoretical/historical perspective. The author (d. 1981) founded the U.S. Paleopathology Association In 1973, the largest professional association in the field.
  • Jones, Richard. “Paleopathology.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, pp. 60–69. New York, 1992.
  • Manchester, Keith. The Archaeology of Disease. Bradford, 1983. Excellent survey of the discipline, with a strong emphasis on the Old World, particularly Europe.
  • Ortner, Donald J., and Walter Putschar. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. 2d ed. Washington, D.C., 1985. The most authoritative and scholarly text on the subject; valuable for its comprehensive coverage of disease worldwide.
  • Preuss, Julius. Biblical and Talmudic Medicine (1911). Translated by Fred Rosner. New York, 1978. Standard reference for diseases mentioned in Jewish scriptural sources. Rosner's English translation corrects certain errors in, but remains faithful to, the original German text.
  • Rafi, A., et al. “DNA of Mycobacterium leprae Detected by PCR in Ancient Bone” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 4 (1994): 287–290. An attempt to utilize modern biomolecular techniques in diagnosing ancient disease on a genetic level.
  • Sandison, A. T. “Diseases in Ancient Egypt.” In Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures, edited by Aidan Cockburn and Eve Cockburn, pp. 29–44. Cambridge, 1980.
  • Wells, Calvin. Bones, Bodies, and Disease: Evidence of Disease and Abnormality in Early Man. New York, 1964.
  • Wood, James, et al. “The Osteological Paradox: Problems of Inferring Prehistoric Health from Skeletal Samples.” Current Anthropology 33.4 (1992): 343–370. Critical review of the discipline as it relates to prehistoric populations.
  • Zias, Joseph. “Lust and Leprosy: Confusion or Correlation?” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 275 (1989): 27–31. This article reflects on how theological and folkloristic concepts are influenced by disease.
  • Zias, Joseph. “Death and Disease in Ancient Israel.” Biblical Archaeologist 54.3 (1991): 146–159. The most comprehensive treatment to date on the subject as it pertains to the ancient Holy Land.

Joseph Zias