Pandemic Archaeology

The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a virus from the coronavirus genus.  These organisms were first characterized in 1965 when two scientists were studying cultures from adults with colds.  The viruses are medium sized cells ranging from 80-150 nm and have club-like projections scattered across their surface.  The name, coronavirus comes from these projections which give the cell a crown-like appearance.  Human coronaviruses are a respiratory illness that is responsible for 35% of viral respiratory pandemics, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Archaeologists, specifically paleopathologists and paleomicrobiologists, have been studying pandemics and disease for ages.  There is so much knowledge that can be gained from studying such events.  We can study how different cultures react to such widespread illnesses, how burial practices change, the types of illnesses and their evolution, the demographics that are most impacted, and general societal changes the occur during and after pandemic events.  Just as studying past climactic changes can shed light on current events, so too can past pandemics.  Studying the evolutional and spread of ancient diseases might allow for predictions to be made about future pandemics and the types of environments that foster pandemics.  As well, this pandemic will be very interesting for future archaeologists to study, especially in examining the social implications of such a fast spreading, world-wide disease.

Remember to wash your hands and practice good social distancing.

One of the ways archaeologists study pandemics and illness is in examining the ancient DNA (aDNA) of ancient microorganisms.  The major issue impacting this research is the preservation of aDNA samples.  While a great resource for study, DNA is highly susceptible to degradation from internal enzymes and external factors.  Paleomicrobiologists tend to find DNA preserved in extreme climates that induce rapid freezing or dehydration, amber, halite (salt rocks) bones and teeth, preserved internal organs, and coprolites.  The oldest virus found was a 30,000-year-old Pithovirus siberican found in permafrost.  Interestingly, this virus still possessed its infectivity.  Other microorganism DNA has been found in Egyptian mummies, the organs of Otzi the Iceman, and dental pulp.  Future paleomicrobiologists might study the DNA of COVID-19 along with examining the many social impacts of the pandemic in our global cultural.

 

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