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Paleopathology is the study of ancient diseases and other ailments as found in human remains and in the remains of other organisms. Anthropologists, archeologists, geneticists, and paleopathologists study diseased mummy and fossil remains and biological material, such as human waste, to learn about ancient diseases and birth defects. Scientists also use paleopathology to study historical epidemics. Through understanding the past history of diseases, paleopathologists can better understand current illnesses and help predict future illnesses.
Being primarily limited to studying the bone structure, paleopathology has been quite keen at detecting historical occurrences of osteoarthritis, dental disease and other ailments that have had a direct impact on the skeletal structure of ancient populations. Conversely, the science has historically had more difficulty detecting ancient diseases that impact body tissue, given that tissue deteriorates at a far faster rate than bone. There have, however, been significant discoveries of soft tissue diseases with the aid of well-preserved Egyptian mummies. Modern technology has also helped to greatly expand the science beyond the study of skeletal structures.
Paleopathology isn’t only used to catalog ancient diseases, but is a useful tool for assembling census data about ancient populations. Through research on bone and soft tissue, researchers can gather what a population’s average life span may have been or what the most common causes of death were.
Although its practice extends further back in time, the term paleopathology was coined in the early 1890s, with credit typically conferred either upon German physician R.W. Schufeldt or British scientist Sir Marc Armand Ruffer. Ruffer is considered by many to be a leading early pioneer of paleopathology. He conducted significant research using Egyptian mummies and developed methods of studying ancient remains that influenced future generations of paleopathologists.
Among Ruffer’s important findings was evidence of tuberculosis in ancient Egyptians as well as the detection of calcified Schistosoma—or bilharzia—eggs in the preserved kidneys of mummies. Schistosoma is a disease caused by worms that parasitically penetrate the skin and proceed to reproduce. Left untreated, these worms can cause damage to a variety of internal organs. The study of Schistosoma in ancient populations is an apt example of how paleopathology can be used to help thwart modern rashes of disease, as the parasite continued to thrive well beyond the time of the ancient Egyptians in some parts of the world.
Paleopathology has dovetailed naturally with other scientific fields. It is not uncommon for a paleopathologist to also study archaeology, forensics, physical anthropology, medicine, and other disciplines that come into repeated contact with ancient remains.
Modern paleopathology is well-equipped to investigate ancient disease, with an increasingly sophisticated array of technological tools at hand. The ability to detect ever smaller strains of matter has enabled the field to restudy ancient tissues with greater clarity, or to examine something as minute as a strand of hair for evidence of disease. As technology improves and more fossils are unearthed, paleopathology will remain an important tool for understanding the diseases of humanity’s past and their possible manifestations in the future.