Palaeopathology: Current challenges and medical impact

Frank J. Rühli, Francesco M. Galassi, Martin Haeusler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Palaeopathology is the science which studies ancient human diseases. Throughout its relatively young history it underwent tremendous technological and methodological improvements (from pure morphology and histology to CT scanning) that have constantly reshaped its scientific rationale. Among other achievements, the study of mummies and fossilized hominids has allowed to effectively extract ancient DNA, prove the existence of atherosclerosis in ancient times, demonstrate the presence of disease vectors, better clarify the etiology of infectious diseases otherwise only postulated on the basis of ancient accounts as well as to show the presence of spine pathology in our hominid ancestors. The research levels in this discipline are three: basic research, individual cases, population. The first and the third levels contribute most to the discipline, while the second is the one more appealing to the general public on account of its description of important cases reports. In addition, a recently introduced sub-specialty of palaeopathology, pathography is aiming to use an interdisciplinary approach to find traces of diseases in ancient literary sources and artistic representations. In spite of its discoveries, palaeopathology is not always viewed positively by clinicians because certain old-fashioned techniques are still due to technical restrictions. The authors provide a set of suggestions on how to strengthen the scientific recognition of this subject and explain at length how it could contribute to the progress of medical research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)816-822
Number of pages7
JournalClinical Anatomy
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • molecular evolution
  • mummies
  • skeleton


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