PPA/AAPA Meetings

Anyone else out there headed for the meetings of the Paleopathology Association and American Association of Physical Anthropologists this April? I got word this week that I get to present a paper at the PPAs and a poster at the AAPAs. In case you want to come and harass me there, I don't have the schedule for the PPAs yet (4/12-13), but my poster at the AAPAs will be up in session 42 (4/16). Titles and abstracts follow.

Unsanitary urbanism?: Rethinking pathology in Imperial Rome
K. Killgrove, UNC Chapel Hill

The historical record of ancient Rome depicts city life as crowded, unsanitary, and violent, especially for the lower classes. It is reasonable to assume that, with a high population density and significant influx of people from around the Empire, the inhabitants of Imperial Rome would demonstrate elevated frequencies of pathological conditions, particularly as compared with skeletal populations from the countryside. Contrary to this expectation, however, are the human remains from the lower-class cemeteries of Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco in Rome. This presentation details as a case study the paleopathological analysis of 183 skeletons from these two Roman cemeteries.

Neither population produced conclusive evidence of infectious diseases (e.g., tuberculosis), and only one individual presented with osteomyelitis. The pathologies reported most frequently in past Roman bioarchaeological literature include porotic hyperostosis, trauma, osteoarthritis, and enamel hypoplasias. Both study populations had significantly lower frequencies of these issues than did previously-published populations. The frequency of cribra orbitalia, for example, is 14-18%, compared to 50-80% in other Roman populations, and enamel hypoplasias affect only 2% of the studied teeth, whereas reported frequencies from other populations consistently exceed 35%.

The people buried at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco present very few indications that their health was adversely affected by life in a large urban center. The dramatically lower frequencies of porotic hyperostosis and enamel hypoplasia in particular suggest that the people of Rome were not homogeneous in their exposure to pathogens, physiological stress, and health outcomes.

Dietary differences between immigrants and locals in Imperial Rome
K. Killgrove, UNC Chapel Hill; J. Montgomery, U Durham; R. Tykot, USF

Although the general diet of people in Imperial Rome consisted primarily of grain, olives, and wine, historical sources indicate that dietary practices varied based on age, sex, and social class. Recent paleodietary work in the Roman countryside and at Italian ports has shown that different food webs were utilized in spite of the proximity of these sites to one another and to the sea. To date, no other study has examined the extent to which the diet of immigrants (both free and slave) affects dietary reconstructions of the population of Rome.

In order to investigate the alimentary resources used in Rome during the Imperial period, we subjected the teeth and bones of 35 individuals from the Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco cemeteries to carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis, as well as strontium and oxygen isotope analysis. Although there were no statistically significant differences between the perimortem diets of locals and immigrants, 15% of the immigrants to Rome had significantly different childhood diets. These individuals' much higher carbon isotope ratios suggest consumption of a diet with comparatively more C4 plants. Further, those individuals whose childhood diets were statistically different from the local diet apparently consumed a local diet after immigrating to Rome, as their perimortem carbon isotope values fall within the local dietary range. We conclude that there is a wide variation in the diets consumed by people in Imperial Rome and that part of this variation is likely related to the presence of immigrants in the population.


Do you think diseases were actually less frequent in ancient Rome or
the bodies of the sick people, especially poor sick people, were just specially handled & not buried with everyone else - burned, buried in remote cemeteries, dumped in the sea?

Now, a question for the second part:
Has anyone done a significant study
linking what people ate to how sick
they became in ancient Rome - if not, then it would be interesting to see how diet influences longterm health without the bias of modern
Hi, Kirill. No, I never said that diseases were less frequent in Rome. We're pretty sure they had rampant malaria as well as other issues - but many of the diseases would have killed them before they showed up on bone. People who died in mass plagues (e.g., the Antonine plague, which was probably smallpox) may very well have been buried separately in mass graves. I don't know of any evidence of mass graves in Rome, though. The surprising thing about my study is that the people in the two cemeteries I looked at had dramatically lower frequencies of most diseases compared to the reported literature. It could be that I underreported disease; it could be that others overreported disease; or it could be that Rome was so diverse - both in its population and in its ecology - that we shouldn't expect to find similar rates of disease in the area.

As for your second question, I don't know of any such study. There is new research that shows there is a link between variation in nitrogen isotopes and disease, and this is a path I need to pursue. The difficulty with correlating diet and disease is that diet is measured from the last 5-10 years of life, and diseases take a variety of time to show up on bone. Still, I appreciate the suggestion; maybe when I get a bigger sample of skeletons from Rome, I can look into this further.

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