martes, 18 de febrero de 2014

Understanding the diseases of Mesopotamians

After decades of intensive research into Mesopotamia, scientists still know relatively little about the diseases that plagued the inhabitants of some of the most famous kingdoms of the ancient world.

A missing record

The main focus has been on excavations within the towns and settlements as well as palace complexes and temples, with a great deal of effort spent on analysis of cuneiform texts. Arkadiusz Sołtysiak of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw decided to examine this palaeoanthropological gap and began by collecting all previously published reports on human remains in what is called ​​Mesopotamia.
“[In the end] I was able to find only 44 publications that dealt with visible traces of human diseases on skeletal material. This paucity of information indicates psychopathology is poorly developed in this region in comparison with other locations such as Europe or Egypt “- explained Sołtysiak.
Such knowledge is quite surprising to the researcher, considering that cultures such as Sumerians, Akadians, Assyrians and Babylonians are just a few of the major civilizations that inhabited the land between the two rivers – ​Mesopotamia.
A lot is already known about the cultures themselves through the work of archaeologists and experts in ancient languages but it seems that human remains are hard to find. They have a poor preservation record due to unfavourable climate conditions – moist winters and hot summers – bones are often fragile and unsuitable for detailed analysis.
In addition, the unstable political situation over the past years has discouraged physical anthropologists to travel in the area and transporting the bone abroad was too expensive and complex.

A testimony to the life of an individual

The skeleton provides information on the life of the deceased as well as what happened to the individual after death. This second aspect deals with the taphonomy. The first – physical anthropology.
Within this there is also paleopathology, focusing on diseases within ancient populations. Normally there is no soft tissue, so the modern researcher can only track those diseases that leave a clear mark on the bones.
“Despite the few published data it can be concluded that the community of Mesopotamia were generally quite healthy.“  explains Sołtysiak.
The oldest preserved and studied Mesopotamian remains, apart from Neanderthals discovered in a cave in Kurdistan come from the earlier Neolithic period, (pre 9000 BP) with the early farmers suffering from osteoarthritis, which may be connected to lifting heavy weights and harder physical labour than before.
With the introduction of draft animals the problem became smaller  and by the Neolithic/Bronze Age, scientists reported fewer such cases of osteoarthritis. However, in the earlier Neolithic period, researchers reported fewer cases of dental disease, including tooth decay. The later worsening condition of the teeth is probably associated with the spread of date palms and changing eating habits.
Unfortunately, progress in the diagnosis of diseases of the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia in the near future will be difficult. Since 2003, in southern Iraq and in 2011 in Syria no excavations are being conducted due to the unstable political situation.
There is clearly a widening gap in the study of the palaeopathology of individuals in Mesopotamia, in relation to other areas of the world, and only increasing the study will help produce larger datasets to evaluate the real health and life of the ancient peoples of the region.

Source: Past Horizons:

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