Disease and Agriculture in Mississippian Period N. America

Diseases are an interesting thing. The development and location of an area can drastically change the types of diseases present, and which are most deadly. If you look at global health maps, such as HealthMap, you can see how drastically different outbreaks are occurring in different areas. For example, cholera has been a major concern in different places as development of them has occurred. It is an infection of the intestine caused by bacteria, and is transmitted through water that has been contaminated by infected human feces. It was a major health threat in English cities during the mid-19th century, but now it is rarely found in first world countries. Today, cholera continues to plague third world countries, and is especially prevalent in Africa, though the most recent epidemic occurred in 2010 in Haiti. The difference is the ability to gain access to clean water- whether that means rural areas where water hasn’t been contaminated or processed and cleaned water from modern cities. Due to place and development having such an effect on the health of the local population and the types of diseases, we can use paleopathology, the study of disease in human remains, to learn more about major changes in human history.

Distribution of Cholera in 2004, via Wikimedia Commons

Distribution of Cholera in 2004, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the largest developments mankind has faced is the change from a hunter-gatherer mobile groups to agricultural sedentary communities. A new article from the Journal of Osteoarchaeology by Mosher, Smith, Albrecht and Salaka (2013), discusses the changes in paleopathology associated with the switch to maize agriculture and village settlements in West Central Illinois from 1050 to 1300 CE. While the period overall saw major changes, the way that this was experienced and the pace of development was highly varied throughout this region due to differences in culture, the ecological contexts of the river bottom versus upland communities, and their differential interactions with Cahokia, the largest settlement north of Mexico. In order to understand how this development affected a specific population from a remote hinterland area of the Upper Mississippi River, the prevalence of treponemal disease and tuberculosis were examined in the skeletal population. Prior studies have linked the rise of these two diseases as consistent with increased sedentism (not mobile, but living in the same place over long periods of time) which challenges previous inferences that this region was occupied by foraging mobile horticulturalists in this period.

Star like lesions from treponemal disease on a cranium, via Mosher et al. (2013)

Star like lesions from treponemal disease on a cranium, via Mosher et al. (2013)

First, a little introduction to treponemal disease and tuberculosis. Nonvenereal treponemal disease (including yaws and treponarid, not syphilis) is a chronic disease that is transmitted by Treponema spirochetes invading the skin. It is most commonly contracted during childhood and is found associated with poor hygiene. The tertiary stage of the disease affects the bones, most commonly appearing as star like lesions on the cranium. There is a correlation between the rise of villages and increased treponemal disease. Tuberculosis (TB) is a pulmonary disease that affects human bone, and is associated with living in aggregated communities like villages. In human remains it is most commonly interpreted from anterior vertebral kyphosis, when the vertebral bodies collapse, and is seen more frequently following increased maize production in 900 CE in North America.

In order to determine how sedentary and agricultural the community was from Schroeder Mounds,  Mosher et al. (2013) examine the skeletal remains from the site that date from 900–1100 CE. The adult skeletal sample includes 53 individuals. 18 individuals show some type of reactive bone growth indicative of non-specific disease or trauma. Of these, 7 display the star-like lesions or other types of indicators commonly associated with treponemal disease such as nodular lesions. Of those 7, 3 have signs of traumatic injury that may have led to the initial infection. 4 other individuals have plausible signs of treponemal disease, but cannot be completely diagnosed based on the available evidence.  There were no individuals who had signs the diagnostic signs of tuberculosis, although 3 had plausible cases based on lesions on the ribs ends.

The goal of this analysis was to solve the question of how mobile or sedentary this group was using paleopathology as evidence. There is a lack of other archaeological evidence such as ceramics have prevented full conclusions about this area to be determined. Mosher et al. (2013) argue that the presence of tertiary stage treponemal disease confirms that this group was sedentary, which is a common pattern for the broader region and time period that had not been determined locally. This is not a final conclusion, but rather a starting point from which future archaeological evidence can be interpreted.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgG. M. MOSHER, M. O. SMITH, J. L. ALBRECHT, & V. P. SALAKA (2013). Treponemal Disease, Tuberculosis and Subsistence-settlement Pattern in the Late Woodland Period West-central Illinois International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2344

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2 responses to “Disease and Agriculture in Mississippian Period N. America

  1. Hi Katy. Maria O. Smith is a friend of mine. Thanks for the nice blog article and the synopsis.

    I have always loved paleopathology, but I also find a lot of the work in it to be unsatisfying from the standpoint of sociocultural elucidation. For example, one can go into the literature and find numerous articles where some undergraduate or graduate physical anthropology student has taken a small Mississippian skeletal collection, identified a lot of cribra orbitalia, linear enamel hypoplasia, and other lesions, and concluded that that some percentage of the population suffered from iron deficiency anemia, scurvy, or some other malady at some point in their lives because they were eating too much maize.

    That is all well and good, but it does not tell me, as an archaeologist, anything I really want to know about their culture. At the risk of sounding like the late Johnny Carson, “Just how sick were these people?” What did this disease matrix look like culturally across an entire palisaded Mississippian village, and how did it affect the daily activities of the people? Was nearly everyone anemic to some limited degree because of their maize diet, but not to a sufficient level that the diseased people really noticed it or even felt badly—so they just carried on with village life as usual. Alternatively, did they have a situation where 15 houses were in desperate need of exterior daub repair, but the 10 people assigned to do the repairs said, “We feel terrible, listless, and too lethargic to even get out of bed this morning, much less repair houses. Could we wait on this a few days or weeks until we feel better?”

    Cribra orbitalia, anemia, and linking it to maize does not really tell me much. I want to know what the level of sickness observed in bone would look like to an observer with feet on the ground and strolling through the village 750 years ago. How did it affect daily activities? Is the shell gorget engraver not at the usual bench in his shop because he is too weakened by anemia to even move? I would think it possible to combine osteological and paleopathological observations on a discrete Mississippian village population with the ethnographic record and World Health Organization records on primitive societies and their overall health to begin to get some outlines and real flavor for what disease conditions and populational health really looked like in Mississippian times.

    “Sorry Katy. Too much Green Giant maize. I feel too weak to type even one more key stroke, and the upper part of my right eye is hurting something awful. I’m gonna have to call off the chunkey match this evening and crawl into bed.” Get it? Thanks!!!

    • Thanks for the extensive reply! I tend to agree with you on this one, there does need to be more discussion about the cultural and archaeological context, what these diseases actually meant, and how this affected the transition. One of the primary reasons I stopped doing osteoarchaeology and focused more on mortuary archaeology was that I wanted to address these bigger cultural questions, not just focus on the bones. However, this type of article is fairly typical for this journal and the focus is on the bones and big picture rather than what it meant locally for those experiencing it. I’m always hopeful though that there will be a change in the future!

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