Paleopathology

I recently began a new project, Bioarchaeology of Harappa: Anthropological Research And Training (BHARAT). This project seeks to understand life at one of the least well known cities in the Indus Civilization using the human skeletal material from excavations that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. The goals of this project are to 1) understand who was buried in the cemetery and why only a small fraction of the city's residents were buried; 2) examine the heterogeneity of frailty (health status of individuals who died in the perinatal, infant and childhood life stages, as opposed to the population of adults); 3) examine the pathological profile at Harappa, specifically the presence and prevalence of infectious diseases; and 4) examine evidence for skeletal trauma--accidental injuries, interpersonal violence, and medical intervention. My former student Kelsey Gray and I will inventory the assemblage of approximately 200 individuals from Harappa and collect osteobiographical data from January to July 2011. Data analysis will continue from April 2011 through 2012. Publications will be submitted after, and presentations will begin after November, 2011. The first such presentation will be in an invited session at AAA in Montreal, November 2011.

This project was inspired by research that uncovered evidence for leprosy at a post-urban outpost of the Indus Civilization. My colleagues and I recently published a paper describing ancient skeletal evidence for leprosy at the village of Balathal in the Chalcolithic layers dated to 2000 B.C.. We know that Mycobacterium leprae evolved in Africa but the pattern and process of migration out of Africa, and it's relationship with human communities since that time has remained a mystery. The presence of leprosy at an Indus outpost in Rajasthan around 2000 B.C. indicates that the disease was present in Indus communities by the end of the urban phase and suggests that other skeletal series from the Indus Civlization should be examined for evidence of the disease. In 2011, I received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellowship to examine pathological conditions in the skeletal material from Harappa and Kalibangan. We have also collected samples for aDNA analysis of the Balathal specimen. This project will tell us whether leprosy was known at one of the largest cities in the Indus civilization. If present, the burial treatment and circumstances surrounding the death of individuals affected by infectious diseases will provide important clues about life, death, and even ideological circumstances during the Indus Civilization.

The presence of leprosy at Balathal, in India, at this early date supports translations of Atharva Veda that reference leprosy, making that the oldest reference to the disease in the world. Atharva Veda also then becomes the first text to associate leprosy and tuberculosis, at least in terms of treatment.

The skeleton was interred within a large stone enclosure and was covered by burned cow dung, dumped in repeated episodes. The interrment of the skeleton in these conditions is similar to the Ash Mound burial context of South India's Neolithic phase and tentatively also suggests that cow dung as a substance may have had significance early in Indian prehistory. The site of Balathal is remarkable in that only five individuals were interred there: one only represented by a few fragments, the leprous skeleton, one man in a samhadi burial posture, and two older women. This fact, combined with insights into the demography and composition of burials at Harappa will yield new insights into ideology in the Indus Civlization.

This research was carried out with ASU student Kelsey Gray and an international team of researchers. It was published in the journal PlosOne (May 27, 2009).

 

 

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