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Durham University

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Synergies between evolutionary medicine and palaeopathology

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Palaeopathology, a subdiscipline of palaeopathology, has an extremely long history stretching back several hundred years (Buikstra and Roberts 2012), while evolutionary medicine has a relatively short history. Coming into prominence when Nesse and Williams published their popular book in 1994 (Why we get sick), palaeopathologists have started to embrace the clear synergy between palaeopathology and evolutionary medicine. Palaepathology traces the origin, evolution and history of disease over very long time periods, while evolutionary medicine ‘uses an evolutionary perspective to understand why the body is not better designed and why, therefore, diseases exist’ today (Nesse 2001:358). They complement each other very clearly.

This project (edited book), is led by Dr Kim Plomp of the University of Liverpool, with Charlotte Roberts (Archaeology) and Sarah Elton and Gillian Bentley (Anthropology, Durham).

In Press

  • Steckel RH, Larsen CS, Roberts CA, Baten J (eds) The backbone of Europe. Health, Diet, Work and Violence over Two Millennia. Cambridge, University Press

  • Roberts CA, Steckel RH The developmental origins hypothesis and the history of health project. In: Steckel RH, Larsen CS, Roberts CA, Baten J (eds): The backbone of Europe. Cambridge, University Press

Relevant public engagement

2018 Bodies of evidence. How science unearthed Durham’s dark secret. Palace Green Library Special Exhibition (June to October 2018)

2015 The archaeology of disease documented in skeletons. Gresham College Public Lecture:

Part of the sternum (breast bone) of a male adult buried at the site of Amara West, Sudan (1200BC), showing holes (destruction) due to spread of a primary tumour to the skeleton. Multiple bones were affected (from Binder et al 2014); courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

Vertebra with a depressed central surface (Schmorl’s node, which indicates a weakened intervertebral disk). The evolution of the spine and its component parts may predispose people to developing Schmorl’s nodes (Plomp et al 2012)

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Hunt, K, Roberts, CA & Kirkpatrick, C (2018). Taking Stock: A systematic review of archaeological evidence of cancers in human and early hominin remains. International journal of paleopathology 21: 12-26.
  • Roberts, C.A. (2016). Palaeopathology and its relevance to understanding health and disease today: the impact of the environment on health, past and present. Anthropological Review 79(1): 1-16.
  • Plomp, K.A., Roberts, C.A. & Strand Viðarsdόttir, U. (2015). Morphological Characteristics of Healthy and Osteoarthritic Joint Surfaces in Archaeological Skeletons. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 25(4): 515-527.
  • Plomp, K.A., Roberts, C.A. & Strand Viðarsdόttir, U. (2015). Does the correlation between Schmorl’s nodes and vertebral morphology extend into the lumbar spine? American Journal of Physical Anthropology 157(3): 526-534.
  • Binder, M., Roberts, C., Spencer, N., Antoine, D. & Cartwright, C. (2014). On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). PLOS One 9(3): 90924.
  • Müller, R., Roberts, C.A. & Brown, T.A. (2014). Biomolecular identification of ancient Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex DNA in human remains from Britain and continental Europe. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 153(2): 178-189.
  • Müller, R., Roberts, C.A. & Brown, T.A. (2014). Genotyping of ancient Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains reveals historic genetic diversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1781): 20133236.
  • Plomp, KA, Roberts, CA & Strand Viðarsdóttir, U (2012). Vertebral morphology influences the development of Schmorl's nodes in the lower thoracic vertebrae. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 149(4): 572-582.
  • Bouwman, AS, Kennedy, SL, Muller, R, Stephens, RH, Holst, M, Caffell, AC, Roberts, CA & Brown, TA (2012). Genotype of a historic strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(45): 18511-18516.


From the Department of Archaeology