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Global History of Health Project

A History of Health in Europe over the Past 10,000 Years: Summary of a Research Proposal

Richard H. Steckel1, Clark Spencer Larsen1, Paul W. Sciulli1, and Phillip L. Walker2

This project creates three large databases to reinterpret the history of human health in Europe from the late Paleolithic era to the early twentieth century. During this period, human health and welfare were transformed enormously by the transition from foraging to farming; the rise of cities and complex forms of social and political organization; European colonization; and industrialization. With a trans-Atlantic network of collaborators, we will undertake large-scale comparative studies of the causes and health consequences of these and other dramatic changes in arrangements for work, living, and human interaction.
Most social scholars outside of anthropology are unfamiliar with the research potential of skeletons. Yet, these are the best source available for measuring and analyzing very long-term trends in health, especially in preliterate cultures and in historical societies with few written records available for study. Even in populations of the modern era, skeletal data can inform the study of health. To obtain this evidence, we are building upon a similar but smaller NSF-sponsored project devoted to the Western Hemisphere. By sending M.A. and Ph.D. students to museums to collect health information from approximately 60,000 archaeological skeletons of people who lived at over 350 localities, we are creating an empirical basis for reinterpreting the health history of Europe. Following training to implement our coding manual, these graduate students will gather information for estimating age and sex, along with data on specific diseases such as tuberculosis and on several standard health indicators including height, and the presence of lesions associated with infections, dental problems, and degenerative joint disease. Project researchers will also create a second database by scouring the published and the gray literature of site reports that we estimate contain information on the average heights of 100,000 to 150,000 men and women who lived in Europe over the past 10 millennia. All raw data will be sent via the Internet to a central processing center at Ohio State University for cleaning, storage, analysis, and eventual distribution.
In collaboration with archaeologists and museum curators, the graduate students will prepare brief site reports that summarize the findings on health indicators; describe the cultural, economic, and social contexts of the sites; and provide information on the local environment in which these people lived. These last components will be enhanced substantially by the creation of a third database, containing systematically collected information about these sites from sources available in the field of climate history and from additional archaeological and historical sources. In addition, we will link the information on each collection to site-specific Geographic Information System (GIS) databases containing information on local ecology that will be corrected, where possible, for historical changes in environmental conditions. The reports will be published in a new Web-based journal devoted to the project, titled Global Bioarchaeology, to be edited by the PIs.
The principal investigators will widely advertise the research project at professional meetings to seek feedback on preliminary results, on specific research themes, and on potential collaborators. These activities will help pave the way to four major conferences planned for comparative study and publication. Pre-conferences will review major results in comparative perspective, define specific topics for the larger conferences, and discuss additional research collaborators. The anticipated conference themes are: (1) health, climate and habitat; (2) health and the transition to farming; (3) the social and economic causes and consequences of long-term changes in health; and (4) the health of women and children. Near the end of the project, we will create a program to assist 10 Ph.D. students in using the data for dissertations.
These data have enormous potential to address other large problems, several of which the PIs will pursue in other proposals, including (1) long-term trends in patterns of trauma and violence; (2) biological inequality; (3) aging and health; (4) health during the rise and fall of civilizations; (5) geographic patterns of health; (6) degenerative joint disease and work; (7) analysis of population genetics and migration patterns using ancient DNA, and (8) use of DNA from specific pathogens to study the co-evolution of humans and pathogenic organisms.

1 Ohio State University; 2 Late of UC Santa Barbara


Ortner Slides (.zip, external link)