Few people know what ‘remains to be seen’ from human skeletal remains uncovered as a result of an archaeological excavation. The recovery of the mummified bodies of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs over one hundred years ago along with the recently discovered Ice Man of Europe has thrilled the world. What did they die of? What were the diseases they struggled against thousands of years ago? What can humankind learn today by studying the remains of those whom have preceded us? These are but a few of the questions asked by the field of Paleopathology, the study of ancient disease.
While there have been documentaries dealing with specific aspects of the field, until now, no one has produced a comprehensive documentary on Paleopathology as a whole. Spanning over two decades of scientific research and field work, we have selected some of our most interesting discoveries as material for a one-hour documentary, illustrating the various methodologies employed by the paleopathologist, from simple descriptive techniques to the more sophisticated use of DNA analysis. A wide range of questions far beyond the medical are also answered in the process. Health and disease problems have always affected humankind, but by understanding the processes of the past, we can perhaps better understand and cope with the future.
Many of the disease processes that afflict humankind today have plagued us for millennia. As disease developed in antiquity, man found ways that were often futile for dealing with heath problems, but this knowledge can influence methods for fighting disease in the future.
Ethnobotany: Hashish, marijuana, opium. From antiquity, man has had a vital relationship with many of the plants that surround him. We found the remains of a young woman who died during childbirth in the fourth century. In her abdominal region, we found the fetus and a foreign substance. After analysis, it was proven that there was an inhalant containing THC, the active ingredient in hashish. Moreover, literary evidence from the Egyptian Eber’s papyrus (c. 1,600 BCE) mentions that Egyptian women actively used the drug for a variety of “female problems.”
Neurosurgery in Jericho, 5,450 B.C.E. The world’s oldest routine medical procedure (10,000 BC), in which a portion of the human skull is surgically removed, remains one of the most fascinating stories in the chronicles of medical history. Evidence of skull surgery has been discovered throughout the world, initiating modern interest in this ancient medical procedure. Our research on the subject, beginning in ancient Jericho over 5,450 years ago, provides what is perhaps the world’s earliest documented evidence as to why this operation was performed in antiquity.
Neurosurgery in Jericho – dramatic presentation:This ancient medical procedure is still being carried out today in parts of Africa, and it is possible to obtain film footage and still photographs of these operations being done in the field using primitive surgical instruments. An anthropologist will explain the surgery and why it was required in ancient times as well; a neurosurgeon will compare the reasons then with the reasons that the surgery is performed today. It should also be possible to locate footage in medical schools on this subject that could be used to show the continuity of this surgical intervention over a span of thousands of years.
Dentistry in the “Wilderness of Zin” What ancient Egyptian texts refer to as “toothers” is the earliest literary evidence of dentistry in the Old World. As early as 3 000 BCE, the first references to an established dental profession began appearing in literature. Perhaps the most common and widespread belief concerning the causes of dental disease was the “tooth worm theory”. There are numerous and often hilarious incantations that were used in exorcising the “worm” from the tooth.
In the mid-1980s, a mass grave in a desolate area biblically known as the Wilderness of Zin, along the Nabatean spice route was excavated. There the remains of a Nabatean soldier from 200 BCE, who had suffered from numerous dental pathologies, were discovered. He had had a bronze wire implanted in the root canal of his upper right incisor. The find is unique in the history of dentistry.
Leprosy – one of the world’s most compelling yet misunderstood diseases ever known to mankind. Until recently, no physical evidence of the disease had ever been discovered in the Holy Land. We first stumbled on it in an ancient Byzantine monastery near the Jordan River. The Saint John the Baptist monastery, built in the 6th century, is directly out of an “Indiana Jones” film with dirt floors, walls constructed of field stones, scorpions and poisonous snakes embalmed in kerosene. The monastery, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus, has had a centuries-long tradition of “the washing of the leper”. We will film the occasion in January, on the Christian feast of Epiphany, when hundreds of pilgrims dressed in black come with the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem to bathe in the Jordan River.
“Is there lice after death?” – Head Lice over 9 000 years
In a desert cave containing the remnants of a cult of the dead, we found a collection of human skulls, several of which had their lice-infested hair re-glued to their heads after death (hair transplant). At Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, several wooden hair combs from the Roman period were discovered, complete with lice and hundreds of eggs, some of which still had embryos intact.
Religion – There has always been conflict between the worlds of religion and scientific thought. In the ancient world, it was believed that one became ill because of transgressions against God and one’s fellow man. This can be juxtaposed next to the idea that many people believed that the power to be healed came from God. Theological scholars could explore this point further.
Conflict over the necessity of such research – Some believe that using bones, skeletons and other discoveries rather than giving them proper religious burial right away is a sacrilege. Scientists argue that the research is beneficial because it presenting information that can assist researchers to find cures for today’s diseases.
Ease of human suffering – In antiquity, it was often the religious orders who treated and cared for people with severe illnesses. In time, hospitals were established and monasteries built specifically to care for the ill.
One of the main principles of paleopathology is the premise that humans and animals do not exist in isolation from their environment and by examining skeletal remains inferences can be made as to whether diseases are a direct result of our environment, genetic make-up or our habits and customs. This understanding can lead us in new directions for dealing with disease in the present.