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Knowledge about the health of ancient indigenous peoples in America is limited both by geographic regions and by culturally significant periods leading up to contact. It is not surprising that no clear picture of trends in health for the many different groups has emerged. One of the best attempts to compile a database on what is known about ancient and historic health can be found in Steckel and Rose’s (2002) The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere. Some regions in the U.S. are very well documented for changes over time relating to diet, health, and trauma (e.g., violence and warfare), and these are drawn on in the rest of the text to highlight the very unique and specific ways that ecology, demography, diet, and social organization underlie patterns and trends in health.

Disease has long been used by scholars from many disciplines as one measure of human adaptability particularly during stressful periods of rapid change or instability. Disease states compromise individual responses but also can have an impact on activities at the household and community levels. Thus, the analysis of health and disease can serve to link biological and social consequences of change in human groups. Paleopathology is the term used by bioarchaeologists to refer to diseases in ancient groups. The focus on paleopathology (ancient disease) and paleodemogra- phy (ancient age, sex, and population structure) are at the heart of what bioarchaeologists do when they carry out their analysis of human remains.

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