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Health and disease

Bone research provides plenty of detailed data about the health of a person or a group. This data is not only used to reconstruct the past but also to fight disease today.

Health in the past: Middenbeemster

In 2011 an extension to the church in the village of Middenbeemster (Noord-Holland) meant digging up a graveyard. This gave archaeologist Menno Hoogland the opportunity to research the population of Middenbeemster between 1615 and 1866.  As Middenbeemster is a closed community and many written sources were available, this provided a good opportunity to research family relations, hereditary diseases and the work that the family members did. ‘People were born here and they died here too,’ says Professor Hoogland. ‘Even in today’s population there are still many descendants of the people that we excavated.’

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3D model excavation

The excavations were very extensive: 412 skeletons in total were excavated. The researchers chose a number of these to study (34 men, 37 women and 54 minors). The study of the skeletons provided a detailed picture of the community’s health. We now know, for instance, that many of the Middenbeemsters’ ancestors suffered from tooth decay, dental tartar and abscesses in their mouths. Tooth research also revealed that the children suffered greatly from stress, probably due to disease and malnutrition. Although unremarkable in themselves in relation to other communities in the past, these findings are still noteworthy, because written sources claimed that the population of Middenbeemster was in good health. The osteoarchaeological research clearly refutes this claim.

The excavation in Middenbeemster also provided a lot of information about the link between certain professions and signs of wear on skeletons. With the aid of the written sources, each skeleton was given a name, a date of birth and death and a profession. This made it possible to establish a relationship between signs of wear on the bones and people’s work, for instance. This knowledge can be applied to research into skeletons from a period for which few written sources have been preserved. PhD student Jessica Palmer researches differences in signs of wear between men and women. She concluded that each sex preformed different types of work. Men often lifted heavy objects, whereas women often used a pull and push motion with bent elbows. This motion was used when milking cows or washing clothes on a washboard.

(Photo: Excavation in Middenbeemster, 2011)

Present-day health: leprosy

Knowledge from the past about leprosy provides leads on how to treat it nowadays. The more we know about the pathology of this disease, the better we can treat it. Leprosy also occurred in the Netherlands centuries ago, but although it has been consigned to the past in Western Europe, this is not the case for Africa. Here people still suffer from this infectious disease that causes the skin to thicken and swell and eventually leads to maiming. Knowledge about infection with the disease and its course is necessary in order to develop medication to delay or cure it.

By studying the bones of people who died of leprosy in the past, we can improve our understanding of the disease. How does leprosy develop within a community? Does everyone contract the disease or are certain groups of people less susceptible to it? Do they eat certain food or do they work under certain conditions that fight off the disease?

Modern equipment and medication are lacking in Africa. Researchers therefore try to relieve the disease without these resources. Treatments based on knowledge from the past may be able to delay the symptoms.

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