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February 1, 1985

Disease in Ancient Man

JAMA. 1985;253(5):694-695. doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03350290100042

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Human paleobiology is the study of ancient or prehistoric man and his diseases. It is an area in which the disciplines of archeology, anthropology, pathology, clinical medicine, and history overlap, and, although concerned with the long buried past, it is still in its infancy. In 1979, an international symposium was held under the auspices of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and the Academy of Medicine, Toronto. Twenty-two papers by experts from diverse fields presented research and deductive observations on such topics as tumors, infections, and trauma as disclosed by the skeletal and dental remains of our ancient ancestors. Some papers described the techniques now used, others commented on what we can learn from the material in museums, including mummies. (It is small comfort that osteoarthritis was prevalent as far back as we can determine.)

One stimulating facet is "paleodemography." As Professor W. M. S. Russell, a sociologist, notes, population