Paleopathologists Study Bones for Evidence of Prehistoric Ailments

<i> Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

One skull, showing evidence of the ravages of syphilis, has been reduced to a condition that researchers refer to as “cottage cheese.”

Another specimen, from pre-Columbian Peru, has a small square of bone chipped away above the forehead, signs of primitive brain surgery.

The teeth of an ancient African have been filed to a point--a fashion trend at that time. It is believed this man died when a dental nerve was accidentally exposed, an abscess formed and burst into his blood stream.

This is paleopathology: the study of ancient culture through its maladies and calamities.


“I don’t consider it morbid,” said Martin Korn, curator of the Anthropology Museum at California State University, Northridge. “You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at its diseases.”

Korn and the museum are presenting an exhibit through Aug. 31, “Disease, Deformity and Disfigurement: A Look at the Interaction Between Culture and the Human Body.” It is a collection of skulls, bone fragments, artifacts and photographs. The remains portray various aspects of daily life in ancient civilizations: the labors of work, the crudely healed fractures of sport, warfare and domestic dispute. Specialized bone X-rays indicate the kinds of food they ate.

‘Dead Teach the Living’

There also is some literature in glass cases, including a newsletter from the principal organization of this study--the Paleopathology Assn. The newsletter bears the association’s motto, mortui viventes docent.


Translated: “The dead teach the living.”

Paleopathology is not a well-known field of study. And there aren’t a whole lot of people pursuing it. The worldwide association lists about 500 members. Few universities offer courses in the specialty.

Museum exhibits on the subject are difficult to find. There is a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Other exhibits appear infrequently at museums around the country, said Rose Tyson, curator of physical anthropology at the San Diego Museum of Man, which held a paleopathological exhibit in 1981.

“People loved it,” Tyson said. “When they see an arthritic knee and they’ve got one, they really can relate. They still come back and ask for it.”


Most paleopathologists are anthropology professors or medical doctors of various disciplines who have conducted extra research on their own, said Eve Cockburn, editor for the Paleopathology Assn. newsletter. Paleopathologists, or skeletal biologists, conduct research when called to archeological digs where remains or ancient burial sites have been discovered.

“It started with mummies,” Cockburn said. “But there has also been quite a bit of work done in South America and in this country, in the Southwest.”

Such research, paleopathologists say, gives important clues about past cultures.

Learn About Social Structure


“We usually look at a society through its artifacts and monuments,” said Alan Leventhal, anthropology lab director at San Jose State University. “By looking at the cemeteries, the skeletal specimens, we learn a lot about who these people were and the kinds of conditions they lived in, and something about their social structure as well.”

Using pre-Columbian Peru as an example, Leventhal explained that a farmer’s remains would show signs of arthritis or bones fortified from hard work in the fields. A wealthy man’s skeleton might bear the marks of ornamental tooth grooving or a skull misshapen from head-binding, both popular forms of beautification.

More recently, in the early 1960s, doctors in New Guinea identified the cause of a neurological disorder that had plagued inhabitants of the East Indies island, Korn said. The malady, called kuru , was found to be passed through cannibalism.

And telltale signs of syphilis offer a virtual treasure chest of information to the paleopathologist, Korn said.


“It tells you something about the sexual attitudes of a culture,” he said. Indeed, a current argument among paleopathologists is whether the explorers with Columbus brought syphilis to the New World or instead brought the disease back to Europe.

Korn suggested that, should Sandy Koufax’s remains be unearthed at an archeological dig many years from now, paleopathologists will find the bones of his left arm to be larger and stronger than those of his right. After further research, they will announce that this abnormality was caused by the former L. A. Dodger pitcher’s participation in the ancient sport of baseball.

And, if your own remains are uncovered, he said, perhaps they will find that your left leg is larger than your right. This, the paleopathologists will surmise, suggests that you drove an automobile that was equipped with a manual transmission and clutch pedal.

“It’s absolutely fascinating,” he said.


The exhibit at CSUN is housed in a small room that is actually the entry to several professors’ offices. There are glass cases and photographs on the walls.

One skull shows bony growths in the ear canals, a malady of those who spent a great deal of time in cold water. It also afflicts modern-day surfers.

An arm bone shows an unevenly healed fracture suffered during fierce fighting. X-rays of leg bones suggest signs of iron deficiency anemia.

Fractures From Combat


Korn said studies of Peruvian skeletons revealed that many of the men suffered one or more fractures of the left forearm. Researchers believe the subjects suffered the injuries fighting right-handed while using their left arms to fend off blows.

The women of that civilization, meanwhile, commonly suffered fractures to the right arm, Korn said. It is thought to be evidence of domestic violence.

Paleopathology is not limited to human remains. Photographs in the CSUN exhibit show Peruvian artwork that depicts a man with signs of a goiter, which is caused by iodine deficiency. Iodine-rich seafood was unavailable where the man lived.

Korn acknowledges that the study of ancient disease is not the most obvious of scientific fields. However, he said, he believes it has applications to the present. Some paleopathologists are called upon by law-enforcement officials to determine the age and sex of fresh skeletal remains.


Korn discussed how future paleopathologists will look back on the spread of AIDS.

“I think they will look back on it in the same way we look back on polio now,” Korn said. “It’s simply another scary, frightening disease.

“I’ve got more of a historical perspective on it,” he said. “I’m looking back into the past and seeing how many times we’ve had situations like this. Eventually, we will have a cure for AIDS, or something to alleviate much of the suffering. At that time, we will be looking forward to the next disease.”