Investigating deseases in ancient Mesopotamia

2014.03.22 08:24

After a half century of intensive research in Mesopotamia, scientists still know little about the diseases which plagued the people of the most famous kingdoms of the ancient world.

The skeleton of a man with an amputated leg in upper third of the thigh, found in Tell Barri site [Credit: A. Sołtysiak]

So far, the research focused on excavations in towns and settlements, and analysis of cuneiform texts. Arkadiusz Sołtysiak of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw decided to fill this gap and collected all previously published reports of anthropologists who examined human remains in the area of Mesopotamia. "I was able to find only 44 publications mentioning traces of disease on human bones. This clearly indicates that palaeopathology of the area of Mesopotamia is very poorly developed in comparison with Europe and Egypt" - explained Sołtysiak. Such state knowledge is quite surprising, considering that thanks to the work of archaeologists and experts in ancient languages, a lot is already known of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian people (these are just a few of the civilizations in the area of Mesopotamia). Unfortunately, the human remains in the Middle East are poorly preserved due to unfavourable climate - moist winters and hot summers. Bones are fragile and often not suitable for detailed analysis. In addition, the unstable political situation in the region discouraged physical anthropologists from travels to this area. Transporting bones abroad was too expensive and too complex for formal reasons. Besides, they could be damaged during transportation. The skeleton provides information on the life of the deceased and what happened to him after death. Taphonomy deals with the second aspect, physical anthropology with the first. A branch of it is also palaeopathology, focusing on diseases in ancient populations. Of course soft tissue is usually not preserved, so scientists can track down only those diseases that leave clear marks on the bones. Reports analyzed by Warsaw researcher concern skeletal remains from all eras, allowing to approximate the general health status of residents of Mesopotamia at different times. "Despite the few published data, it can be concluded that the communities of Mesopotamia were quite healthy. We can also identify some trends - for example, least diseases visible on the bones were recorded in the early and mid- Bronze Age. Interestingly, this correlates well with written sources of that time - it was a heyday of farming communities" - explained Sołtysiak. The oldest preserved and studied Mesopotamian remains, apart from Neanderthals discovered in Shanidar cave in Kurdistan, come from the Neolithic period, i.e. from about 9000 years ago. The then early farmers often suffered from osteoarthritis, probably associated with lifting heavy weights. Probably, with the introduction of draft animals, the problem became smaller - in fact in the Bronze Age that followed the Neolithic period, scientists reported fewer such cases on the bones. In the Neolithic period, in turn, there were fewer cases of dental disease, including tooth decay. Sołtysiak explained that after the relatively favourable for human societies Bronze Age, at the beginning of the Iron Age there was an economic and agricultural collapse, possibly caused by climate change and numerous conflicts. "This is the most difficult time in the history of the region, as evidenced by both written sources and archaeological finds. An interesting fact is gradual increase of the number of case of teeth disease until the Middle Ages, probably associated with the spread of date palms growing and changing eating habits" - believes the scientist. Unfortunately, progress in the study of diseases of the people of ancient Mesopotamia in the near future will be difficult. Excavations have not been conducted in southern Iraq since 2003and in Syria since 2011, due to unstable political situation. An article on the subject has been published in the latest issue of the journal "Światowit" (vol. X) LI 2012, published by the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw.

Source: PAP – Science and Scholarship in Poland [21-02-2014]

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