Palaeopathology: The Study of Ancient Disease in Archaeological Human and Nonhuman Remains

Living reference work entry

Introduction and Definition

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition has not been amended since 1948 (, accessed July 26, 2017). This of course is a definition that relates to living populations but could be equally applied to the past. Being unhealthy today compromises normal life and the very function of society; this would have been true for our ancestors all over the world.

How can we study our ancestors’ health? It is possible to access information pertinent to health and disease in the past by studying historical documents describing disease, and viewing artistic representations of disease in particular periods in time (e.g., Fig. 1). In prehistoric times, these types of evidence are relatively nonexistent and they are more useful for more recent periods, for example, the medieval period in Europe. Our...
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Aufderheide, A.C., and C. Rodriguez Martin. 1998. The Cambridge encyclopedia of paleopathology. Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Brickley, M. & J.I. McKinley. (ed.) 2004. Guidelines to the standards for recording human remains (Institute of Field Archaeologists Paper 7). Reading: Institute of Field Archaeologists.Google Scholar
  3. Buikstra, J.E., and L.A. Beck, eds. 2006. Bioarchaeology. The contextual analysis of human remains. Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  4. Buikstra, J.E., and C.A. Roberts, eds. 2012. A global history of paleopathology: pioneers and prospects. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Buikstra, J.E. & D. Ubelaker. 1994. Standards for data collection from human skeletal remains (Arkansas Archeological Survey Research series 44). Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey.Google Scholar
  6. DeWitte, S., and J. Bekvalac. 2010. Oral health and frailty in the medieval English cemetery of St Mary Graces. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 142: 341–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Lambert, P.M. 2002. Rib lesions in a prehistoric Puebloan sample from southwestern Colorado. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 117: 281–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Lefort, M., and P. Bennike. 2007. A case study of possible differential diagnoses of a medieval skeleton from Denmark: Leprosy, ergotism, treponematosis, sarcoidosis or smallpox? International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 17: 337–349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Resnick, D. 1995. Diagnosis of bone and joint disorders. Edinburgh: W.B. Saunders.Google Scholar
  10. Roberts, C.A. 2009. Human remains in archaeology. A handbook. York: Council for British Archaeology.Google Scholar
  11. Roberts, C.A., and K. Manchester. 2010. The archaeology of disease. 3rd ed. Stroud: History Press.Google Scholar
  12. Roberts, C.A., and S.A. Mays. 2011. Study and restudy of curated skeletal collections in bioarchaeology: A perspective on the UK and the implications for future curation of human remains. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 21: 626–630.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Trevathan, W., E.O. Smith, and J.J. McKenna. 2008. Evolutionary medicine and health. New perspectives. Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Wood, J.W., G.R. Milner, H.C. Harpending, and K.M. Weiss. 1992. The osteological paradox: Problems of inferring prehistoric health from skeletal samples. Current Anthropology 33: 343–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Further Reading

  1. Aufderheide, A.C. 2003. The scientific study of mummies. Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Barnes, I., A. Duda, O.G. Pybus, and M.G. Thomas. 2011. Ancient urbanization predicts genetic resistance to tuberculosis. Evolution 65: 842–848.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bennike, P. 1985. Palaeopathology of Danish skeletons. A comparative study of demography, disease and injury. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.Google Scholar
  4. Bouwman, A.S., S.L. Bunning, R. Müller, M. Holst, A.C. Caffell, C.A. Roberts, and T.A. Brown. 2012. The genotype of a historic strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 109: 18511–18516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brown, T., and K. Brown. 2011. Biomolecular archaeology: An introduction. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chemm, R.K., and D.R. Brothwell. 2008. Paleoradiology. Imaging mummies and fossils. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  7. Cohen, M.N., and G. Crane-Kramer, eds. 2007. Ancient health. Skeletal indicators of agricultural and economic intensification. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.Google Scholar
  8. Katzenberg, M.A. 2008. Stable isotope analysis: A tool for studying past diet, demography and life history. In Biological anthropology of the human skeleton, ed. M.A. Katzenberg and S.R. Saunders, 2nd ed., 413–460. Chichester: Wiley-Liss.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Lewis, M.E. 2007. The bioarchaeology of children. Perspectives from biological and forensic anthropology. Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
  10. McElroy, A., and P.K. Townsend, eds. 2009. Medical anthropology in ecological perspective. 5th ed. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  11. Ortner, D.J. 2003. Identification of pathological conditions in human skeletal remains. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  12. Rawcliffe, C. 1997. Medicine and society in later Medieval England. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.Google Scholar
  13. Roberts, C.A., and M. Cox. 2003. Health and disease in Britain. From prehistory to the present day. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.Google Scholar
  14. Schultz, M. 2001. Paleohistology of bone: A new approach to the study of ancient diseases. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 44: 106–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Stearns, S.C., and J.C. Koella, eds. 2008. Evolution in health and disease. Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Steckel, R., and J.C. Rose, eds. 2002. The backbone of history. Health and nutrition in the western hemisphere. Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Tilley, L., and A.A. Schrenk, eds. 2017. New developments in the bioarchaeology of care: Further case studies and expanded theory. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  18. Wilbur, A.K., A.C. Stone, C.A. Roberts, L. Pfister, J.E. Buikstra, and T.A. Brown. 2009. Deficiencies and challenges in the study of ancient tuberculosis DNA. Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 1990–1997.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyDurham UniversityDurhamUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Soren Blau
    • 1
  • Luis Fondebrider
    • 2
  • Douglas H. Ubelaker
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Forensic Medicine, Victorian Institute of Forensic MedicineMonash UniversitySouthbankAustralia
  2. 2.The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF)Buenos AiresArgentina
  3. 3.National Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA