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date: 16 June 2024

Paleoepidemiologylocked

Paleoepidemiologylocked

  • Samantha L. YaussySamantha L. YaussyJames Madison University

Summary

The field of paleoepidemiology utilizes epidemiological and bioarchaeological methods and theoretical frameworks to examine aggregate patterns of disease and other health outcomes in past populations. Paleoepidemiological studies most often use data gathered from the skeletal remains of deceased individuals to investigate the origin and antiquity of specific diseases in the past; explore the coevolutionary history of particular pathogens and their human hosts; and assess patterns of intra- and interpopulation variation in susceptibility to disease, risks of mortality (frailty), and the various health outcomes produced by diseases and other conditions in past human populations.

Paleoepidemiological scholarship benefits from an interdisciplinary approach to the study of health and disease in the past, applying analytical techniques common in epidemiological studies of living populations, such as hazards analysis and survival analysis, while also drawing on the theories and methods traditionally employed in bioarchaeological research. However, unlike contemporary epidemiological studies, paleoepidemiological work is also constrained by the biases and limitations of skeletal data, including issues of preservation, hidden heterogeneity in frailty, selective mortality, and the potential for skeletal indicators of stress and disease to simultaneously signal “good” and “poor” health. In spite of these limitations, the field of paleoepidemiology provides valuable insights into past pandemics of diseases like tuberculosis and plague, major epidemiologic transitions in antiquity, and the developmental origins of health and disease in past human populations. Importantly, the results and conclusions of paleoepidemiological research hold value not only for scholars interested in life and health in the past but also researchers and public health experts concerned with understanding and mitigating global health crises in the present and future.

Subjects

  • Archaeology
  • Biological Anthropology

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