Subsistence and Settlement Correlates of Treponemal Disease: Temporal Patterns in Pre-Columbian East Tennessee


  • Maria Ostendorf Smith,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA
    • Correspondence to: Maria Ostendorf Smith, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790-4660, USA.


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  • Tracy K. Betsinger

    1. Department of Anthropology, State University of New York College at Oneonta, Oneonta, NY, USA
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After ca 1000 BC, coinciding with the transition to sedentism, tertiary stage treponemal disease apparently becomes osteologically pervasive in pre-Columbian North America. However, varying interobserver treponemal disease diagnostic thresholds, sampling error and the possibly ecosensitive nature of the pre-Columbian nonvenereal treponemal disease variants (i.e. yaws and treponarid) prevents subsistence-settlement pattern from becoming a reliable predictor of treponemal disease prevalence. This is particularly true of later prehistory with the transition from horticulture to intensive, maize-based agriculture. To address whether treponemal disease visibility does vary across this specific subsistence-settlement threshold, subadults (4+ years of age) and adults from 11 late prehistoric sites (N = 997) from the same geographic area of East Tennessee were sampled for the presence of treponemal disease. Six sites (N = 279) primarily date to the Late Woodland period (AD 700–900) and culturally belong to what is referred to as the Hamilton mortuary complex. The sample is archaeologically characterised as horticulturalist with presumably a dispersed farmstead or hamlet settlement pattern. Six sites (N = 718) date to the Late Mississippian (AD 1300–1550, Dallas phase) and are maize-intensive agriculturalists with a large, aggregate village settlement pattern. The sites were examined using three different levels of treponemal disease diagnostic confidence.

Treponemal disease raw frequency does indeed differ across the levels of diagnostic confidence between the total Late Woodland horticulturalist sample (4.3–5.5%) and total Late Mississippian maize agriculturalist sample (5.4–6.5%). The meaning is complex as the Dallas phase sample may have a socially segregated elite; the mound-interred (1.8%) relative to the village-interred (6.1–7.4%) exhibited significantly fewer cases of treponemal disease. Tentatively, treponemal disease visibility does appear to co-associate with sedentism and perhaps (if the mound-interred Dallas individuals are elites) also aggregated settlement. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.