Reading the Bones

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Science  13 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6164, pp. 1291
DOI: 10.1126/science.1249076

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The modern era of disease emergence and reemergence is attributed to issues ranging from the deterioration of the environment, which brings humans in contact with pathogens that jump species barriers, to globalization, which is expanding the reach of pathogens beyond their former geographic boundaries. The transition from foraging to agriculture about 10,000 years ago accelerated the emergence of infectious disease. But it was the rise in social inequalities within and between societies that created disparities in disease risks and access to treatments, conditions that are still evident in today's world. The calls for improving surveillance, research, vaccines, and behavioral change are indeed urgent, but what is also worrisome is the lack of an evolutionary perspective in formulating new strategies to confront this modern disease-scape. Paleopathology—the study of ancient diseases—not only provides an archaeological record of the adaptations and lifeways of ancient peoples, it is a source of information on the evolutionary epidemiology of infectious diseases. Reading the bones of the ancient dead can guide how we confront infectious diseases today.