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date: 10 December 2022

Disease and Trauma in Past Southern African Communities: Archaeological Perspectiveslocked

Disease and Trauma in Past Southern African Communities: Archaeological Perspectiveslocked

  • Susan PfeifferSusan PfeifferDepartment of Anthropology, University of Toronto


For thousands of years, all southern African communities survived through hunting and gathering. Within the past two millennia subsistence strategies diversified to include pastoralism, farming, and most recently Eurocentric industry in a colonialist framework. Each of these strategies is distinctive with respect to the way diseases and musculoskeletal trauma affected people’s health. Using methods arising from palaeopathology, forensic anthropology, and archaeology, studies have assessed human skeletons to explore these patterns. Evidence of infectious disease is negligible among hunter-gatherers of the region, but there are examples of environmental and inherited diseases, as well as fatal and near-fatal traumatic injuries. While some trauma may be linked to environmental hazards and predation, other cases appear to reflect intergroup aggression. Non-specific stress indicators suggest possible new challenges to hunter-gatherer health around the time when pastoralism is first discerned archaeologically. Among Iron Age African farmers, who reached the region about 1,700 years ago, the evidence for infectious diseases is equivocal. Investigations are hampered by the rather small sample sizes. In some cases, reburial of excavated remains precludes research using newer methods. Evidence of infectious disease is minimal among all Indigenous groups prior to the disruptions associated with European arrival. After European arrival, there is clear evidence of various infectious diseases affecting Indigenous communities, and the patterns of traumatic damage to the skeleton are more dramatic. Among cemeteries of mine workers from colonial-era settings, the effects of occupational trauma are apparent. The evidence from archaeology is consistent with that of written documents, confirming the destructive impact of colonial practices on the Indigenous populations of southern Africa.


  • Southern Africa

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