Chapter 8. Molecular Palaeopathology of Human Infectious Disease

  1. Ron Pinhasi PhD Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology member2 and
  2. Simon Mays PhD Human Skeletal Biologist Visiting Lecturer member Secretary3
  1. Helen D. Donoghue PhD Lecturer Senior Lecturer Fellow member societies

Published Online: 27 DEC 2007

DOI: 10.1002/9780470724187.ch8

Advances in Human Palaeopathology

Advances in Human Palaeopathology

How to Cite

Donoghue, H. D. (2007) Molecular Palaeopathology of Human Infectious Disease, in Advances in Human Palaeopathology (eds R. Pinhasi and S. Mays), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9780470724187.ch8

Editor Information

  1. 2

    Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland

  2. 3

    English Heritage Centre for Archaeology, Fort Cumberland, Eastney, Portsmouth PO4 9LD, UK

Author Information

  1. Centre for Infectious Diseases and International Health, Department of Infection, University College London, London, UK

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 27 DEC 2007
  2. Published Print: 14 DEC 2007

ISBN Information

Print ISBN: 9780470036020

Online ISBN: 9780470724187



  • microbial genomics;
  • leprosy;
  • tuberculosis;
  • plague;
  • palaeomicrobiology;
  • palaeoparasitology


Direct molecular evidence of the presence of infectious microbes in human archaeological material has proved a fruitful but very controversial field of study. The great majority of published findings are based upon the direct detection of ancient DNA of pathogenic microorganisms, and even now there are those who doubt the authenticity of data. A good understanding of the natural history of the infectious agent and of its interaction with the human host is necessary. Practical problems arise unless the likely site in the body of any biomolecular traces of the microbe is known, and the relationship to the stage of the disease. This is entirely separate from the vexed question of the preservation of microbial biomolecules in comparison with those of their human host.

General principles for undertaking this biomolecular work are described and likely developments indicated. The strategies adopted by particular groups of infectious microbes are outlined and the accumulated body of knowledge in relation to specific diseases is updated or reviewed. Finally, the interaction with the expanding field of microbial genomics is mentioned and the co-evolution of infectious agents and their human hosts is considered.