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CHAPTER 1. Introduction: The Scope of Paleopathology

Anne L. Grauer

Subject Anthropology

Key-Topics disease

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781444334258.2012.00001.x


The field of paleopathology, quite simply, entails the study of ancient disease. However, nothing is “quite simple” within this scientific discipline. As noted by Buikstra (2010) , defining the term “ancient” can be as complex as defining the term “disease.” In part, this is due to our preconceived notions about these terms. “Ancient,” for instance, conjures thoughts of prehistoric or early historic life, dating hundreds to thousands of years ago. The term “disease” is often used to imply harmful changes caused by invading pathogens. Within paleopathology, however, the terms “ancient” and “disease” hold more nuanced, and even contested meaning. For instance, determining what material will be paleopathologically examined often relies upon the origin of the sample and/or the question being posed, rather than the date the individual(s) died. In many states throughout the U.S., human remains are considered “old” and are recovered archaeologically, rather than forensically (or under the auspices of funeral directors), when they are deemed to be over 100 years old. Hence, large numbers of human remains from as recently as the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been studied by paleopathologists. These are hardly “ancient” by most definitions. Yet, the information gained from these skeletal remains about human disease in the past is enormous. The term “disease” is similarly complex. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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