2.0 Why Study Animal Palaeopathology?

Disease is not uncommon; rather it is all pervading. It has affected both human and animal evolution, and has been culturally formative, whether in determining rituals, impeding armies, or influencing the elaboration of therapeutic practices. The information provided by the study of animal health in both wild and domestic taxa can also provide helpful insights into human-animal interactions, as well as the environment in which both are living. Palaeopathology, therefore, should be viewed as a significant topic in archaeology (Brothwell 1988, 276).

The breadth of archaeological questions that can be pursued through the analysis of palaeopathological data has recently been highlighted (Davies et al. 2005). Much research, for example, has focused on bone diseases and abnormalities that are believed to result directly from traction and riding activity (see, for example, Bartosiewicz et al. 1997; Brown and Anthony 1998; de Cupere et al. 2000; Daugnora and Thomas 2005; Groot 2005; Higham et al. 1981; Izeta and Cortés 2006; Johannsen 2005; Levine et al. 2000; 2005; Telldahl 2005). While other archaeological indicators, such as material culture and plough marks, can provide supporting evidence for the use of animals for these purposes, these are much less ubiquitous than faunal remains. Moreover, secondary zooarchaeological indicators for the identification of traction animals, such as demographic profiling, have recently been questioned (Groot 2005; Johannsen 2005). The study of palaeopathology may therefore be the best source of evidence to tackle these issues, and thus contribute to major debates within archaeology, such as the timing and nature of the Secondary Products Revolution, and the origins of horse riding, as well as the more general use of animals in agricultural settings.

Other aspects of animal management which palaeopathological evidence can be, and has been, used to explore include: stock-keeping (Brothwell 2002; Brothwell et al. 2005; Thomas 2001); breeding regimes (Ervynck and Dobney 2002); feeding regimes (Albarella 1995; Dobney and Ervynck 1998; 2000; Dobney et al. 2002; Teegen 2005a) and zoonotic transfer of diseases (Lignereux and Peters 1999; Mays 2005). Further to these economically orientated questions, animal palaeopathology also has the potential to examine attitudes to animals, through the identification of cases of both animal abuse (e.g. Teegen 2005b) and therapeutic intervention (Udrescu and Van Neer 2005; von den Driesch and Peters 2002 ).

Clearly, animal palaeopathology has a significant role in addressing key issues concerning past human-animal relationships. However, only if the discipline has a sound methodological focus, emphasising description over diagnosis, and moves away from the 'interesting specimens' approach, will the full potential of the subject be realised.


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Last updated: Wednesday 8th November 2006