Using Disease to Understand Death

As those who read my series on Leprosy know, disease can have a major effect on not only the way society treats an individual in life, but also how they are treated in death. Treatment of diseased individuals is a culturally defined phenomenon. As seen with leprosy, some cultures confine them to a specific area, others ignore them, and some celebrate them as their own class of individuals. Therefore, it is important when interpreting disease in the past to understand how that culture viewed it, rather than place our own beliefs onto them. A new study by Marstellera, Torres-Rouff, and Knudson from the International Journal of Paleopathology uses ethnography and ethnohistory in order to understand the mortuary context of six females who were infected with a disfiguring disease.

The study focuses on  Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, a disease which disfigures the face and destroys portions of the nasal bones and palate. Marstellera, Torres-Rouff, and Knudson first looked at the social consequences of having this disease in Chile by using ethnographic and ethnohistoric evidence. There is no written evidence of conceptions of the disease prior to the Spanish colonization, but the authors argue that by taking a wide range of these interpretations they are able to get closer to the true ideology of pre-Colombian beliefs about the disease. “Careful consideration of these [ethnohistoric] concepts in our interpretations of … archaeological and bioarchaeological evidence will enable us to move beyond Western disease constructs” (2011:26).

They found a number of common themes in the written record which would affect social treatment and therefore mortuary context. First, the Andean people believed that the physical body and inner self were indistinguishable from one another. This means damage to the body is a reflection of damage to the soul. Second, disease is inflicted on the living by the dead for breaking social customs and can only be cured by a special type of healer. Third, fasting, banishment and violence towards the sick was not uncommon due to their social transgressions.  It is possible that these can be inferred in the skeletal remains.

The archaeological evidence consists of six burials from two cemeteries, Coyo Oriental and Tchecar Tumulo Sur, in the highland Deserts of Chile, both dating between 500 and 1000 years ago. The six female burials all had bioarchaeological evidence of Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, including lytic lesions (areas of bone resorption and destruction) in the nasal bones, jaw, eyes, and inner cranial bones. DNA analysis confirmed the diagnosis. There was no difference in the burial treatment of these individuals when compared with the other 1200 skeletons from the two cemeteries.

Sara J. Marstellera, Christina Torres-Rouff, Kelly J. Knudson 2011

There is no evidence that the women were stigmatized in any way for the disease. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t subject to violence, but none was apparent on the bone and there was no difference in burial treatment. Since disease was a sign of disruption of social order, it may have been perceived as resolvable and therefore not worth stigma. One interesting fact considered by the authors is that given the environment of the Andean population, the women would have had to of traveled into the lowlands in order to contract the disease since it is only transmitted through a specific type of fly found in the rainforest. This potentially means that there was a division of labor where women were more active in the lowlands.

Marstellera, Torres-Rouff and Knudson conclude that by taking an approach which considers the ideology of sickness as well as the bioarchaeology and archaeology of the context, they are able to create more nuanced interpretations of the way that these women experienced disease in this area. I cannot stress the importance of this type of approach enough. The combination of multiple lines of evidence, while not possible in every excavation, can lead us to more accurate interpretations of the past. The greatest thing about doing mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology, is that we are actively putting people back into the past. It can be easy to forget that these ruins we excavate were created by living individuals (as noted by Terry Brock in his post “Remembering People Behind Things“), but mortuary and bio-archaeology prevent that from happening. We have a direct link to the people. It is our job to as much as possible accurately represent them and populate the past with these living individuals.

Works Cited

Sara J. Marsteller, Christina Torres-Rouff, Kelly J. Knudson. 2011 Pre-Colombian Andean sickness ideaology and the social experience of leishmaniasis: A contextualized analysis of bioarchaeological and paleopathological data from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. In International Journal of Paleopathology 1: 24-35.

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