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Evolving Health:

Palaeopathology and Evolutionary Medicine


Palaeopathology, a subdiscipline of palaeopathology, has an extremely long history stretching back several hundred years (Buikstra and Roberts 2012 The global history of paleopathology. Pioneers and prospects. Oxford University Press), while evolutionary medicine has a relatively short history. Coming into prominence when Nesse and Williams published their popular book in 1994 (Why we get sick. Vintage Books), palaeopathologists have only recently started to embrace the clear synergy between palaeopathology and evolutionary medicine.

Palaepathology traces the origin, evolution and history of disease over very long time periods, while evolutionary medicine ‘uses an evolutionary perspective to understand why the body is not better designed and why, therefore, diseases exist’ today (Nesse 2001:358). They complement each other very clearly and thus the idea of a volume emerged.

This project is led by Dr Kim Plomp (Plomp K, Roberts CA, Elton S, Bentley G (eds) Evolving Health: Palaeopathology and Evolutionary Medicine), a former jointly supervised archaeology and anthrolology PhD student at Durham University. Charlotte Roberts is also co-authoring chapters within the volume on leprosy, on tuberculosis and on cardiovascular disease. The volume will be published by Oxford University Press, and is nearing completion.

The project exemplifies good research practice bringing the two disciplines together for the first time in an edited volume, and showing the impact of the two disciplines on each other and the medical profession per se.

Project Partners

Kim Plomp, former PhD student, Durham University (completed 2013); Sarah Elton and Gillian Bentley, Durham’s Department of Anthropology; and all the chapter authors.

Key publications

Relevant publications by Charlotte Roberts prior to the current project:

  • Steckel RH, Larsen CS, Roberts CA, Baten J (eds) 2019 The backbone of Europe. Health, Diet, Work and Violence over Two Millennia. Cambridge, University Press
  • Roberts CA, Steckel RH 2019 The developmental origins hypothesis and the history of health project. In: Steckel RH, Larsen CS, Roberts CA, Baten J (eds): The backbone of Europe. Health, Diet, Work and Violence over Two Millennia. Cambridge, University Press, 325-351
  • Hunt, K, Roberts, CA & Kirkpatrick, C (2018). Taking Stock: A systematic review of archaeological evidence of cancers in human and early hominin remains. International journal of paleopathology 21: 12-26.
  • Roberts, C.A. (2016). Palaeopathology and its relevance to understanding health and disease today: the impact of the environment on health, past and present. Anthropological Review 79(1): 1-16.
  • Plomp, K.A., Roberts, C.A. & Strand Viðarsdόttir, U. (2015). Morphological Characteristics of Healthy and Osteoarthritic Joint Surfaces in Archaeological Skeletons. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 25(4): 515-527.
  • Plomp, K.A., Roberts, C.A. & Strand Viðarsdόttir, U. (2015). Does the correlation between Schmorl’s nodes and vertebral morphology extend into the lumbar spine? American Journal of Physical Anthropology 157(3): 526-534.
  • Binder, M., Roberts, C., Spencer, N., Antoine, D. & Cartwright, C. (2014). On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). PLOS One 9(3): 90924.
  • Müller, R., Roberts, C.A. & Brown, T.A. (2014). Biomolecular identification of ancient Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex DNA in human remains from Britain and continental Europe. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 153(2): 178-189.
  • Müller, R., Roberts, C.A. & Brown, T.A. (2014). Genotyping of ancient Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains reveals historic genetic diversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1781): 20133236.
  • Plomp, KA, Roberts, CA & Strand Viðarsdóttir, U (2012). Vertebral morphology influences the development of Schmorl's nodes in the lower thoracic vertebrae. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 149(4): 572-582.
  • Bouwman, AS, Kennedy, SL, Muller, R, Stephens, RH, Holst, M, Caffell, AC, Roberts, CA & Brown, TA (2012). Genotype of a historic strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(45): 18511-18516.

 Photograph and x-ray of a male human breast bone from Amara West, Sudan showing signs of cancer

Image above: Clearly cancer is an ancient not just a modern disease. Part of the sternum (breast bone) of a male adult buried at the site of Amara West, Sudan (1200BC), showing holes (destruction) due to spread of a primary tumour to the skeleton. Multiple bones were affected. (from Binder et al 2014 Int J of Paleopathology; courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Photograph of a vertebra from a human spine with depressed central surface

Image above: Vertebra with a depressed central surface (Schmorl’s node, which indicates a weakened intervertebral disk). The evolution of the spine and its component parts may predispose people to developing Schmorl’s nodes (Plomp et al 2012 American J of Physical Anthropology)

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