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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus

Note to students and instructors

This text is written for an audience of students and laypeople who have had no exposure to bioarchaeology except through the media reports and specialty telecasts. The information about health in ancient America is presented in a way that invites further inquiry and research by going to the references that are cited. Often these references are old and date to the 1970s and 1980s, but this is because these are the original references and because they are the best references for various points made in the text. Careful decisions have been made as to what to include in this text, and any information not covered was made in alignment with the goal to keep the narrative accessible and engaging for readers with little or no background in the areas of paleopathology and bioarchaeology.

To sum up

This text provides case studies on health conditions and quality of life in the U.S. prior to colonization in the early 1500s relying on four core areas from which there is a great deal of excellent data on human health. The general health and lifestyle of people living hundreds of years in the past capture our imagination, in part, because it is so difficult to consider a world without modern medical advances, at least here in the U.S. There are no historic or modern analogs to look to in reconstructing the past. As L. P. Hartley (1988), the British novelist, famously said, “[t]he past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and we take this to mean that it is very difficult to understand the lifestyles of our friends and neighbors let alone those living deep in the past. Yet, information about the health status of the earliest inhabitants gleaned from their tangible bony remains is available and provides a glimpse at how the people who came before us dealt with newborn babies, climate change, food shortages, repressive political regimes, violence, and inequality.

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