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Pots and Pathology: Bio-Archaeological Data Suggests A Shift In Prehistoric Settlement Pattern

by Maria Ostendorf Smith, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Loyola University, Chicago and Research Associate. McClung Museum

Pottery making has a long prehistory in the American Southeast. The earliest evidence of pot making (circa 2500 BC) is found along the Atlantic coasts of South Carolina/Georgia and Florida. The earliest pots had storage advantages but also some technological limitations. After 1000 BC, when ceramic pots became usable for cooking over direct heat, the technology spread throughout the Southeast over the course of a few hundred years (Sassaman 2002).

Based on the dates of the appearance of particular pottery styles used for direct heat cooking, pot making appears in the Tennessee River Valley of west-central Tennessee between 500 and 0 BC For many archaeological contexts, the presence of pottery is a horizon marker between the late Archaic (circa 2500 BC–500 BC) and the Woodland period (circa 1000 BC–AD 1000). Although the Woodland period is characterized by changes in subsistence (increasing use of domesticated plants), social organization (as reflected in mound building), and cosmology (e.g., Hopewell culture), this transition occurs over a long period of time and not all cultural and economic changes are simultaneous or universal. Indeed, initial plant domestication and, of course, the origins of pottery date much earlier than the traditional Woodland period horizon marker. This realization certainly has altered our definition of time periods in areas where pottery has great antiquity.

With respect to the spread of the techniques for producing pottery that tolerates direct heat cooking, there is often archaeological evidence of pot making in otherwise late Archaic (that is, hunter-gatherer) economic contexts. What cannot easily be archaeologically determined is whether pottery is an additive technology for hunter-gatherers or a herald of changes in society and food procuring and/or production strategies. Specifically, a certain amount of sedentism is required for pottery making and these storage and cooking tools are not easily portable. We do know that the hunting and collecting food procurement strategy of the Late Archaic Period was intensive; that is, it involved longer seasonal occupation of fewer camp sites, but it is difficult archaeologically to see the impact (if any) of pot making on the number and length of occupation of seasonal camp sites. This problem is where human paleopathology data can offer insights.

With the adoption of settled life, population density and crowding increase the likelihood of communicable and environmentally derived diseases. It has been well and universally documented paleopathologically that the adoption and intensification of agriculture (in the eastern United States, generally after AD 1000) is accompanied by compromised health conditions. Certain diseases are sensitive to and reflective of sedentism and population density. One of these is treponematosis or treponemal disease, a chronic communicable skin disease with four syndromes (yaws, pinta, treponarid, syphilis) each of which has a particular geographic distribution (Ortner 2003). For example, today pinta is found only in South America. The syndromes which are apparent in North American prehistory are yaws and treponarid. Both display pathological changes to the bone which are mutually indistinguishable, but can be particularly diagnostic – which is important for human paleopathologists.

Treponemal disease has a considerable antiquity in North America. This author recently has reported on two cases from the East Tennessee site of Eva dating to the late Middle Archaic Period (6000 BC – 3000 BC) (Powell et al. 2005). However, because of incomplete and unavailable data, little is known of the pattern and frequency of treponemal disease before agricultural intensification. The osteological remains from the western Tennessee River Valley (from what is now the Kentucky Lake Reservoir) consist of a large sample of Late Archaic and Early Woodland individuals. These remains provide a rare opportunity to examine sedentism-sensitive treponemal disease across a technological change in intensive hunter-gatherers.

The frequency of treponemal disease in the Tennessee Late Archaic sample (493 individuals) is less than one percent and is greater than nine percent in the Early Woodland sample (88 individuals). Not only is this a dramatic (and statistically significant) frequency change, but all the Late Archaic cases are young subadults while the Early Woodland cases include adults. This pattern is as significant as the frequency. Yaws and treponarid are diseases of young childhood (Ortner 2003). After an acute phase, it becomes a chronic disease of recurrent inflammatory episodes with bone damage occurring approximately two years after the initial infection. The bone signature of a childhood with treponemal disease is differential changes to the anterior margin of the tibia resulting in bowing. This remodeling is often referred to as ‘saber shins’ or ‘boomerang leg’. The presence of exclusively subadult saber tibia and no adult cases in the Late Archaic sample suggests that few children survived the acute stages of the disease. The Early Woodland sample includes multiple adults with ‘saber tibia.’ The implication here is that some change affected the survivorship of children beyond the acute phase that, in turn, made them paleopathologically visible as adults.

This evidence of differential survivorship is a provocative result. Sedentism is indeed flagged in west-central Tennessee by increased treponemal pathology, but it is not necessarily revealing generally poor community health as does the evidence from the permanent village settlements of later prehistory. Subadults are surviving through, and adults are surviving with, chronic illness. What we are seeing are sedentary conditions that favor recuperative rest and care, particularly for vulnerable small children. These conditions likely include better basic nutritive health which arguably is consequential to the cooking and storage revolution of direct heat tolerating pottery.

These results invite continued examination of other community health status differences between the Late Archaic and Early Woodland osteological remains from the western Tennessee Valley and elsewhere.

References Cited

Ortner, Donald J. 2003.  Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains, second ed. Academic Press (Elsevier Science), Amsterdam.

Powell Mary L., G. Bogdan, D.C. Cook, M.K. Sandford, M.O. Smith, D.S. Weaver. 2005. Treponematosis Before 1000 BC. The Skeletal Evidence. in The Myth of Syphilis: The Natural History of Treponematosis in North America, edited by M.L. Powell and D.C. Cook, pp. 418-441. The University Press of Florida, Gainesville.