Paleopathology  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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

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, such as Marc Armand Ruffer, clarified the medical nature of ancient skeletal pathologies. This included a review of human paleopathology published by H.U. Williams in 1929 and a book published by Pales in 1930 on paleopathology and comparative pathology. 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.

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.

New techniques in molecular biology also began to add new information to what was already known about ancient disease, as it became possible to retrieve DNA from samples that were centuries old.

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.

The first exhaustive reference of human paleopathology evidence in skeletal tissue was published in 1976 by Ortner & Putschar. In identifying pathologies, physical anthropologists rely heavily on good archaeological documentation regarding location, age of site and other environmental factors. These provide the foundation on which further analysis is built and are required for accurate populations studies. From there, the paleopathology researcher determines a number of key biological indicators on the specimen including age and sex. These provide a foundation for further analysis of bone material and evaluation of lesions or other anomalies identified.

Archaeologists increasingly use paleopathology as an important main tool for understanding the lives of ancient peoples. For example, cranial deformation is evident in the skulls of the Maya, where a straight line between nose and forehead may have been preferred over an angle or slope. There is also evidence for trepanation, or drilling holes in the cranium, either singly or several times in a single individual. Partially or completely healed trepanations indicate that this procedure was often survived.

Infectious diseases in the archaeological record

Several diseases are present in the archaeological record. Through archaeological evaluation these diseases can be identified and sometimes can explain the cause of death for certain individuals. Aside from looking at sex, age, etc. of a skeleton, a paleopathologist may analyize the condition of the bones to determine what sort of diseases the individual may have. The goal of a forensic anthropologist looking at the Paleopathology of certain diseases is to determine if the disease they are researching are still present over time, with the occurrence of certain events, or if this disease still exists today and why this disease may not exist today. Some disease that are found based on changes in bone include

Apart from bones, molecular biology has also been used as a tool of paleopathology over the last few decades, as DNA can be recovered from human remains that are hundreds of years old. Since techniques such as PCR are highly sensitive to contamination, meticulous laboratory set-ups and protocols such as "suicide" PCR are necessary to ensure that false positive results from other materials in the laboratory do not occur.

For example, the long-held assumption that bubonic plague was the cause of the Justinian plague and the Black Death has been strongly supported by finding Yersinia pestis DNA in mass graves; whereas another proposed cause, anthrax, was not found





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Paleopathology" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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