In recent years the impact of animal disease on human societies has had an extremely high profile, with the spread of diseases such as BSE and foot and mouth among animal populations, as well as the transmission of diseases such as HIV, Ebola and SARS from animal to human populations. The social and economic impact of such illnesses has been profound. However, studies on the effect of animal health and disease in past human populations have been widely neglected, despite early recognition of their value within zooarchaeology (Brothwell 1969; Siegel 1976). Although there has been a recent upsurge in the quantity of research on past animal health and disease (see, for example, Bartosiewicz et al. 1997; Davies et al. 2005; Ervynck and Dobney 1999), the study of animal palaeopathology has still been described recently as, 'an inchoate discipline, pursued by a relatively small number of analysts' (O'Connor 2000, 98).
In contrast, palaeopathology's pre-eminence within the field of human osteology is well documented. Of the twenty-nine chapters in Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science (Cox and Mays 2000), seven cover various aspects of disease in the past, one covers non-adult palaeopathology, and three deal with bone adaptation due to trauma or physical activity. Thus, approximately one-third of the volume relates in some way to issues typically dealt with by palaeopathologists. Moreover, the increasing concern with the repatriation of human skeletal remains in countries such as the United States has led to an urgent need among human osteologists to standardise recording protocols, including palaeopathological data (e.g. Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994; Brickley and McKinley 2004), as part of an attempt to preserve by record material that has subsequently been reburied.
There are several factors that appear to have contributed to the neglect of animal palaeopathology, some of which are a matter of perception, while others are methodological issues that require addressing (Albarella 1995, 699; Shaffer and Baker 1997, 256; Thomas and Mainland 2005, 1-2). One of the most frequently cited problems is the difficulty of diagnosis. Animal bone assemblages typically consist of isolated and disarticulated fragments. This poses particular difficulties in attempting diagnosis for two related reasons. Firstly, because one pathological process can be expressed on several different elements, diagnosis is sometimes only possible through the analysis of the distribution of lesions across the skeleton. This is compounded by the fact that many different disease processes can manifest themselves on particular skeletal elements in a similar manner. As human osteologists have long recognised (Roberts and Manchester 1997, 6), it is often only possible to undertake differential diagnosis when the skeleton is very well preserved; only rarely do such circumstances present themselves in faunal assemblages (although see Fabiš 2005 for an exception). While a number of quantitative and qualitative recording systems have been devised to try to overcome such difficulties (e.g. Bartosiewicz et al. 1997; Dobney and Ervynck 1998; Levine et al. 2000), they are generally very specific, often relating to only one pathology, frequently intended for a single species and repeatedly driven by a need to address very specific research questions.
A further problem is that it is frequently only the 'interesting' pathological specimens that are reported: specimens that exhibit extreme deformation, or those that are most readily identifiable, or that reflect the particular skills and research interests of the archaeozoologist (O'Connor 2000, 108). Moreover, where such pathologies are noted, emphasis is placed on diagnosis rather than description. This diagnosis-centric approach is problematic for a number of reasons and has been attributed, at least in part, to an over-reliance upon Baker and Brothwell's (1980) seminal volume, Animal Diseases in Archaeology, as a solely diagnostic tool (Thomas and Mainland 2005, 2). As noted by Thomas and Mainland (2005, 1-7), such an approach not only fails to integrate pathological data with the other faunal evidence, but also fails to consider their wider archaeological relevance. No evidence at a population-level can be gained from merely studying isolated examples.
There is also a belief that pathological conditions occur too infrequently within most assemblages to provide meaningful data. It is undoubtedly true that small sample sizes plague palaeopathological studies and, combined with the fragmentary and disarticulated condition of most archaeological collections of animal bone, hamper diagnosis and make it difficult to draw accurate conclusions regarding their significance. However, where the prevalence of broad categories of palaeopathology have been analysed on a regional basis, (see, for example, Murphy 2005), the results have been extremely informative.
Given the multiple aetiologies of pathological anomalies, coupled with the fragmentary nature of faunal assemblages and the fact that incidences of pathological bone are often low, it is perhaps unsurprising that negative attitudes towards the diagnosis of animal palaeopathology and the study of past animal health and disease have persisted. However, we argue that an adjustment in approach among archaeozoologists may provide the solution to these problems. While the question of minimum standards is one that has been much debated within archaeozoology, and as a concept has been embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm by specialists within the field, it is important nonetheless to establish a common language and share methodological approaches to common problems. This article therefore sets out the archaeological rationale behind developing a generic methodology to enable the consistent recognition, recording and description of animal palaeopathological data. Furthermore, the experience of palaeopathologists concerned with human populations is drawn upon to suggest how animal palaeopathology might be recorded consistently so that questions concerning past animal health and disease may be more fully addressed in the future.
© Internet Archaeology
Last updated: Wednesday 8th November 2006