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The Archaeology and History of Human Diseases in the Zimbabwean Past  

Pauline Chiripanhura, Ancila Katsamudanga, and Justen Manasa

Throughout history, communicable diseases have impacted humanity. If present experiences are any indication, diseases must have had significant impact on transforming the economic and social organization of past communities. Some aspects of what is regarded as normal modern human behavior must have emanated from responses to diseases, especially epidemics and pandemics. Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted in this area of archaeological investigations to shed more light on the influence of these on past communities. This is more so in African countries such as Zimbabwe where the history of pandemics stretches only as far as the beginning of colonialism, less than 200 years ago. Although the earliest world epidemic was recorded during the 5th century, it was not until 1918 that Zimbabwe recorded the first incidence of a worldwide epidemic. There is little knowledge on how precolonial communities were affected by global pandemics such as Black Death, the bubonic plague, and similar occurrences. It has to be noted that global pandemics became more threatening as society made the shift to agrarian life around 10,000 years ago. This has led many scholars to regard the adoption of agriculture as the worst mistake in the history of the human race as they argue that the creation of more closely connected communities gave rise to infectious diseases and presented these diseases with the chance to grow into epidemics. Diseases such as influenza, smallpox, leprosy, malaria, and tuberculosis are among those that have thrived since this shift. With its long human history, Africa is well positioned to shed light on the occurrence of global pandemics as well as their distinct impact on communities living in diverse social, economic, and natural environments. As such, it is important to explore the study of diseases, especially epidemics and global pandemics, to augment the worldwide knowledge generated from other continents. This knowledge should also be juxtaposed with what is already known about changing social, economic, and political developments to see the potential impacts that these pandemics had on the human past. The history of migration should be viewed as a potential history of the spread of new diseases. For all the known pandemics, the South African coast has served as the major corridor of transmission of disease pandemics into Zimbabwe. However, archaeologically, it is known that migrations were mostly over land from the northern and eastern regions. It is interesting to delve into how the spread of diseases could have differed when the movements of people over land, rather than coastal ports, are the nodes. Since there are few documentary sources to help in the comprehension of past outbreaks in the precolonial period, archaeological evidence becomes key. Without doubt, human skeletons represent the most ubiquitous source of information on ancient diseases. Zimbabwe has remains that stretch from the Stone Age to historical times. Paleopathology is an underdeveloped discipline in southern Africa, but with increased awareness of the possibilities of the presence of various diseases in prehistory, it is expected to grow.

Article

Bioarchaeology in the Nile Valley  

Jenail H. Marshall and Michele Buzon

Bioarchaeology is the study of human remains within their archaeological and mortuary contexts. Bioarchaeologists use skeletal biology, mortuary practices, and the archaeological record to answer questions about past populations’ lives and lifestyles. The term Nile Valley defines a geographic region of Egypt and Nubia, the latter encompassing the region between the First Cataract at Aswan, Egypt, and the Sixth Cataract just north of Khartoum, Sudan. Spanning the Nile River area, it is sometimes referred to in its two parts, according to the river’s flow, from south to north, Lower Nubia in the north and Upper Nubia in the south. In Egypt, that is Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north. For over a century, the region has had many campaigns and salvage projects that have led to the excavation of thousands of skeletal remains from ancient Nile Valley sites. Analyses of these collections have provided important information about the people and their health, patterning disease and trauma, diet, and biological relationships. Early morphological research on the skeletal remains of the people who once lived in ancient Nubia was dominated by biased interpretations stemming from racist paradigms in the early 19th century that included racial typologies. Moving beyond these perspectives, contemporary research on the ancient Nile Valley has expanded methodological and theoretical advancements in bioarchaeology more broadly. The integration of bioarchaeology in the larger context of archaeological projects provides a wealth of information that includes but is not limited to health, disease, identity, nutrition, life experiences, and demographic patterns. Likewise, how archaeology is conducted in the region is shifting and highlights a move toward decolonial and ethical practices within the discipline, including involvement with the local communities.

Article

Chronology of the Hominin Sites of Southern Africa  

Andy I.R. Herries

The identification of the Taung Child Australopithecus africanus type specimen as an early human fossil (hominin) by Raymond Dart in 1924, followed by key discoveries at sites like Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Makapansgat in the 1930s and ’40s, was key to understanding that humans first arose in Africa, not Europe or Asia. Later discoveries in eastern Africa have shown that the earliest potential hominins (e.g., Orrorin tugenensis) date back to at least 6 million years ago. In contrast, the oldest fossils hominins in South Africa are those of Australopithecus from the sites of Taung and Makapansgat and are dated to between about 3.0 and about 2.6 million years ago (Ma); only one specimen, from Sterkfontein, potentially dates to earlier than this sometime between 3.7 and 2.2 Ma. However, the majority of early hominin fossils in southern Africa come from 2.8- to 1.8-million-year-old palaeocave remnants in the Malmani dolomite of the Gauteng province. These sites have a rich record of hominin species, including Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus sediba, Paranthropus robustus, and Homo erectus. Most of these species, except for Homo erectus, are endemic to South Africa. However, the DNH 134 specimen from Drimolen Main Quarry does represents the oldest fossil of Homo erectus anywhere in the world. This specimen occurs at a time around 2 Ma when there is a turnover in hominin species with the extinction of Australopithecus and the first occurrence of Homo, Paranthropus, and an archaeological record of Oldowan and bone tools. Acheulian technology occurs from at least 1.4 Ma and is associated with specimens simply attributed to early Homo. The oldest hominin fossil outside the northern Malmani dolomite karst is dated to between 1.1 and 1.0 Ma, at Cornelia-Uitzoek in the Free State, and also represents the last specimen defined as early Homo. Paranthropus is also last seen around 1 million years ago, when the first specimen attributed to Homo rhodesiensis may also have occurred at Elandsfontein in the Western Cape. There is a dearth of hominin fossils from the terminal Early Pleistocene until the late Middle Pleistocene when a high diversity of hominin species occurs between about 340,000 and about 240,000 years ago (c. 340 and c. 240 ka). This includes a late occurring specimen of Homo rhodesiensis from Broken Hill in Zambia, Homo helmei or early modern humans from Florisbad, and Homo naledi from Rising Star. This is also a period (post 435 ka) containing both late occurring Acheulian and early Middle Stone Age (MSA) technology, but none of these fossils is directly associated with archaeology. Definitively early modern human fossils are not found until after 180 ka in direct association with MSA technology, and the majority, if not all, of the record occurs during the last 120 ka.

Article

Modern Human Behavior  

Pamela R. Willoughby

In evolutionary terms, a modern human is a member of our own species, Homo sapiens. Fossil skeletal remains assigned to Homo sapiens appear possibly as far back as 300,000 or 200,000 years ago in Africa. The first modern human skeletal remains outside of that continent are found at two sites in modern Israel, the Mugharet es Skhūl and Jebel Qafzeh; these date between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago. But this just represents a short, precocious excursion out of Africa in an unusually pleasant environmental phase. All humans who are not of direct sub-Saharan African ancestry are descended from one or more populations who left Africa around 50,000 years ago and went on to colonize the globe. Surprisingly, they successfully interbred with other kinds of humans outside of Africa, leaving traces of their archaic genomes still present in living people. Modern human behavior, however, implies people with innovative technologies, usually defined by those seen with the earliest Upper Paleolithic people in Eurasia. Some of these innovations also appear at various times in earlier African sites, but the entire Upper Paleolithic package, once known as the Human Revolution, does not. Researchers have had to split the origin of modern biology and anatomy from the beginnings of modern cultural behavior. The first clearly evolves much earlier than the latter. Or does it?

Article

The OsteoDontoKeratic Culture  

Patrick Randolph-Quinney and Anthony Sinclair

The Osteodontokeratic (ODK for short) is a technological and cultural hypothesis first proposed by Raymond A. Dart in 1957, based on fossils recovered from the South African cave site of Makapansgat. Dart proposed that the extinct hominin species Australopithecus prometheus were predatory, cannibalistic meat eaters, and specialized hunters. He suggested that they manufactured and used a toolkit based on the bones (osteo), teeth (donto), and horns (keratic) of prey animals, and that these first tools were evidence for the “predatory transition from ape to man” as a distinct stage in human evolutionary development. Dart based his hypothesis on the analysis of bones of fossil ungulates and other prey species found at Makapansgat. The parts of the skeleton recovered from the cave were biased toward the skull and limb bones, whilst the thorax, pelvis, and tail were largely absent, indicating a selection agent at work. The bones also exhibited evidence of damage, which Dart suggested could only have been caused by intentional violence. Many of the bones were blackened, which he suggested was due to burning or charring in a controlled fire. In his mind, the hominins of Makapansgat were prodigious hunters who used organic tools to kill their prey, whereupon they cooked and ate the meat, discarding waste bone but utilizing some of the skeletal material to make new tools. Dart developed a detailed typology of complete or modified bones that he indicated could be used as clubs, projectiles, daggers, picks, saws, scoops, and cups—in doing so, he confused form with function. Dart and the ODK were championed by the American playwright Robert Ardrey across four hugely successful popular science books starting with African Genesis in 1961. Following Dart, these books portrayed our early ancestors as aggressive hunters killing prey and each other, driven by a need to protect their territory. This concept infiltrated popular culture through the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968, making the ODK perhaps the most famous scientific claim for an original form of human technology. Dart’s hypothesis was not widely accepted by contemporary scientists such as Kenneth Oakley, Sherburn Washburn, John Robinson, and C. K. “Bob” Brain, and led Brain to conduct his own field research on the agents of fossil accumulation and site formation processes in South Africa. Brain later demonstrated that the pattern of bone damage and skeletal part representation recorded by Dart at Makapansgat was the result of nonhuman modification, particularly accumulation and dietary processing of ungulate carcasses by large carnivores such as leopard or hyena. Furthermore, the blackening of bone was caused by manganese mineral staining. In testing and falsifying the ODK hypothesis, Brain and fellow researchers laid the experimental groundwork for the discipline of vertebrate taphonomy (the laws of burial and postmortem processes) which is now a cornerstone in paleolithic archaeology and the study of early human origins. It is debatable whether this scientific specialism would exist in its present form without Dart’s claims for the ODK.

Article

Paleoepidemiology  

Samantha L. Yaussy

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.

Article

Plant Use  

Anna Maria Mercuri

Plant use is a familiar word pair that emphasizes how the great wealth of properties and characters of different botanical species has allowed humans to develop different aspects of their culture. On one hand, plants communicate chemically with each other; on the other hand, their wealth of chemical communication tools has attracted humans, who are interested in colors and smells, taste and food, fuel, wellness, and health. The traces of plants buried in archeological sites—the subject of archeobotany—allow us to reconstruct the steps of the relationship between humans and plants. Surprisingly, the study of botanical remains from the past shows complex uses since the very early stages of human cultures, dating back even before the beginning of the Holocene. The relationship with the environment was structured in forms of increased control, at least from the invention of agriculture (as something that had never existed before) onward, undertaking complex forms of exploitation in accordance with the different cultures in the different regions of the world. In more recent times, people and plants have also progressively developed a history of greater management and interdependence, including the development of agricultural landscapes, selection of domesticated species, and creation of gardens. The relationship with plants changes as society changes, leading to the loss of much knowledge in present times because of less connection and contact with nature. Knowledge and conservation of traditions dealing with plants are studied with ethnobotany, which explores plant use in the present day. Ecology for ecosystem services is the newest perspective on plant use, where perhaps trees return to play a key role in human existence without being cut down, and the green color of chlorophyll returns as a reassuring signal to the human species.