Summary

This essay has presented an overview of recent research on ancient disease in the Americas. Materials from North America and the west coast of South America have been emphasized, as they have been in studies of pathology. Our survey highlights the success of ancient Peruvian surgeons, and as well illustrates the frequency of healed fractures and osteoarthritis in North American materials. North American remains also dominate the recent investigations of nonspecific indicators of population health, as they do studies of bone chemistry designed to reveal the approximate content of ancient diets. Recent studies emphasizing the biological costs and benefits of maize agriculture, as summarized in this essay, illustrate synergism between diet and health status, as well as the importance of cultural and environmental contexts in explaining disease in the past.

Several of the subjects addressed here are a source of debate in the 1990s. The antiquity of rheumatoid arthritis in the New World has received recent attention, as has the long-standing question of venereal syphilis and its origins. In the 1950s the prevailing opinion was that no tuberculosislike pathology existed in the prehistoric New World (Morse 1961), a view that has been reversed. Even so, the conditions under which this tuberculosislike pathology developed remain obscure and controversial.

As noted by Buikstra and Cook (1980) in their review of paleopathology in the Americas, there has been increased emphasis on the study of ancient disease since 1970. Frequent collaboration between medical and social scientists, with input from chemists, is producing remarkable new insights concern ing the quality of life of peoples who left few clues other than their tissues. This productive trend is vital to the full appreciation of America's unwritten past, as it is to research concerning the history of disease.

Jane E. Buikstra

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