Paleopathology: The Relationship Between Humanity and Disease

Paleopathology is the study of diseases, viruses, and epidemics throughout history and their effects on individual people, animals, environment, and societies as a whole. It is an area of study that ties anthropology, archaeology, and forensics together to investigate diseases and their impacts. Additionally, contact between societies can be tracked through the spread of diseases, in which groups transmit diseases when they travel and trade with other groups. Viruses have been around for all of human existence, and have severely affected human development and growth, and paleopathologists strive to discover and research these effects in order to piece together the entire existence of humanity.

10,000 years ago, the shift to agrarian life resulted in sweeping epidemics and brought forth devastating consequences on developing groups (History 2019). Agriculture allowed the creation of large communities in which people no longer hunted and gathered for food, which in turn led to the domestication of animals. Overpopulation, malnutrition, and overcrowding allowed disease to run rampant, rapidly devastating societies. Additionally, this newly created physical connection between humans and animals eventually allowed a direct transmission of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox from animals to humans, which wiped out large portions of populations,  and directly altered human biological systems for future generations.

The complete effects of disease on the entirety of human evolution and development are immeasurable. However, paleopathologists have developed several analysis methods in order to pinpoint these consequences. Bone analysis is one of the most prevalent methods, in which archaeologists examine bone structure and composition in order to determine which diseases that particular person had at their time of death. Teeth are by far the most useful body part in determining disease affliction. The genome sequence of several diseases can be preserved within teeth, and paleopathologists have been able to recreate these sequences to study the evolution of disease throughout history

Paleopathologists were able to recreate the genome sequence of smallpox shown above from dental analysis of Viking remains (Autoren 2020).


Smallpox, one of the most lethal human diseases throughout history, has remained a mystery to paleopathologists for years. Claiming between 300-500 million human lives in the 20th century alone, researchers recently found Vikings from over 1400 years ago who were afflicted with smallpox, noted by residue found from dental analysis,  definitively creating a baseline approximation for the development of the deadly disease (Ktori 2020).

Picture of the 1200 year old Viking site in Öland, Sweden, that contained traces of smallpox (Page 2020).

Before this discovery, scientists have relied on vague analysis of Egyptian mummies, and were unsure about the origins of smallpox. Now, they have been able to reproduce the genome sequence and compare the virus to its current sequence, allowing paleopathologists to start effectively researching smallpox’s evolution since the Viking age. The lethality of the strain that was found within the Vikings’ teeth is currently unknown, as the severity of the disease cannot be measured, but researchers have hypothesized it must have been noticeable considering such a large amount was found. Pushing back the earliest known evidence of smallpox by 1000 years, this groundbreaking discovery opens a pathway for more extensive research on diseases and their influence throughout history. 


Additional Content for Further Discovery

History of Tuberculosis

History of Malaria

Works Cited

Autoren Mühlemann B et al. “Even The Vikings Had Smallpox.” Even the Vikings had smallpox | German Center for Infection Research. DZIF, July 24, 2020. 

Division of Tuberculosis Elimination. “History of World TB Day.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 12, 2016.,China%20(2%2C300%20years%20ago). Editors. “Pandemics That Changed History.” A&E Television Networks, February 27, 2019. 

Institute of Medicine (US). “A Brief History of Malaria – Saving Lives, Buying Time – NCBI Bookshelf.” National Library of Medicine. NIH, 2004.

Ktori, Sophia. “Smallpox Found in Viking Teeth Proves Disease Plagued Humans for 1400 Years.” GEN. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, July 24, 2020. 

Page, Michael Le. “DNA from Viking People Reveals the Unexpected History of Smallpox.” New Scientist. New Scientist, July 29, 2020.

Battlefield Archaeology: Visualizing Military Strategy

History is written in blood and almost every conflict throughout time has been inadequately documented, creating mysteries and gray areas in battles that forged nations. A specific sub-area of archaeology, battlefield archaeology, studies the material remains of these conflicts in order to evoke a greater understanding of the violence and strategy of these historic battles.

Troop formations, military tactics, and the exact positions soldiers were standing can be determined by the martial debris left behind: buttons, coats, straps, shrapnel, etc. (American Battlefield Trust 2021). The concentration of martial debris is equally important as well, where a higher concentration of artifacts in a specific area can better track movement and positions on the battlefield. These artifacts are carefully excavated, flagged, and categorized in order to map out the battle. Furthermore, the location of these artifacts is often more important than the artifact itself because it helps archaeologists visualize the entirety of the battle in the surrounding area. 

Archaeologists excavate and flag the locations of artifacts using cameras and photo scales at Minute Man National Historical Park (American Battlefield Trust 2021).

Military data and records have been a historical gray area for years, as militaries rarely recorded detailed information and after-action reports in previous centuries. More specifically, many aspects of battles throughout American history have remained mysteries, as records have been few and far between. One of the most important conflicts in American history, the Revolutionary War, had many sporadic and scattered skirmishes, and accurately dating and identifying these battles has been difficult for historians. With the help of battlefield archaeology, historians have been able to paint a clearer picture of the movement, positions, and artillery formation of these battles that define vital moments of American history.

One battle of the Revolutionary War, Parker’s Revenge, in which Captain John Parker rallied his troops in Lexington and Concord after the “shot heard round the world” has recently been brought to light after ten musket balls and a cluster of other artifacts were uncovered by battlefield archaeologists (American Battlefield Trust 2021). The shape and disfigurement of these musket balls accurately show the troop formation in which they were shot, the target they were aimed at, and the firing range of the muskets (Zorich 2022). Battlefield archaeologists were able to conclude which musket balls hit soldiers, missed, or were mistakenly dropped on the ground, allowing them to map out specific locations of the battle, and how these soldiers moved in reaction to the environment and conflict itself. 

Archaeologists flagging and excavating artifacts found on the site of Parker’s Revenge in Minute Man National Historical Park (Archaeology 2016).

Battlefield archaeology brings gray areas of history to light, solving mysteries of past battles. Visualizing the movement, positions, and actions of these soldiers as they fought for their lives depicts the bravery, sacrifice, and violence of the history of each nation. Battlefield archaeology reveals the untold stories of past conflicts and provides an in-depth comprehension of important moments of history.


Additional Content for Further Discovery

Battlefield Archaeology

Archaeology at Antietam


American Battlefield Trust. “Archaeology Pinpoints Site of Parker’s Revenge near Lexington.” American Battlefield Trust. American Battlefield Trust, March 25, 2021. 

American Battlefield Trust. “The Importance of Battlefield Archaeology.” American Battlefield Trust. American Battlefield Trust, March 25, 2021.

Carman, John. “Battlefield Archaeology.” SpringerLink. Springer New York, January 1, 1970.  

National Parks Service. “Archeology at Antietam (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, April 16, 2020. 

Urbanus, Jason. “Finding Parker’s Revenge.” Archaeology Magazine. Archaeological Institute of America, 2016. 

Zorich, Zach. “A Battlefield from 1777 Yields a Dozen Mercenaries’ Remains.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 3, 2022.