by Leslie Eisenberg, Department of Anthropology, New York University
Skeletal remains of past human populations are a unique source of behavioral, cultural, and medical information. Both physical anthropologists and archaeologists study these remains in order to learn more about demographics, stature, diet, longevity, infant mortality, and the health status of earlier groups. While certain aspects of these data can be derived from the study of food remains and artifacts recovered from archaeological sites alone, much of what we would like to learn about past populations can be obtained only through careful and systematic study of human burials.
Since 1982, I have been studying the remains of Late Mississippian period (AD 1250–1450) groups from Middle Tennessee in order to assess the possible role that disease may have played in the massive depopulation of that region prior to European contact. (Although the first Europeans brought new diseases that decimated aboriginal populations, Middle Tennessee had suffered a great population decline even before Europeans arrived.) Specifically, I have been examining the skeletal evidence for disease in these populations. Diseases that affect bone are the long-term, chronic ones like tuberculosis; shorter-lived, acute diseases like measles often leave no discernable trace of their presence. The study of disease in prehistory is known as Paleopathology, and those who pursue these studies are known as paleopathologists.
Based on numerous paleopathological studies completed to date, there seems to be a great deal of variability in the relative levels of health and disease observed from site to site during late prehistoric times in Middle Tennessee. In general, the skeletal remains recovered from sites earlier in the Mississippian period appear to reflect healthier individuals less subject to interpersonal violence than those from later in the period, which consistently exhibit high levels of systemic infection, including tuberculosis, nutritional deficiencies, trauma, and poor dental health. These temporal differences may reflect not only increasing levels of population density among these sedentary peoples, but also the devastating effects of the interaction of infection and nutritional problems.