CRC 1266 - Scales of Transformation

Phase 2 - Research activities 2020-2024

F4: Tracing Infectious Diseases by Analysis of Ancient Human Genomes and Skeletal Pathology

Research agenda

In the next phase, we will pursue three specific goals. First, we will continue to investigate the genomic and phenotypic evolution of blood-borne pathogens. Second, our focus will shift to the analysis of both pathogens and human hosts, with special attention to adaptations of the immune system. By combining the results, it may be possible to assess directly (pathogens) and indirectly (immunogenetics) infectious diseases as a component of transformations, and to describe the population origin of these genetic adaptations in Neolithic and Bronze Age populations across Europe. Third, we will broaden our understanding of infectious diseases by including palaeopathological analyses of human remains in an additional work package. Symptoms of infection and physical stress manifested in the skeletal body can provide invaluable information on diseases that hitherto lack genetic evidence. Skeletal changes will be evaluated in a paleoepidemiological perspective and will offer a complementary view on susceptibility, infection, physical stress, morbidity, and mortality of populations.

To strengthen the synergy between the genetic and skeletal data, our work packages will analyze the same anthropological material. We will focus on the Neolithic periods between 3800-2600 BCE in Germany, specifically the Wartberg Culture, as the results of the first phase have shown that this period is characterized by population admixture, boom, bust and recovery. To what extent disease and epidemics were involved in such processes is still unclear. For instance, the bust phase at around 2900 BCE may have been triggered or accompanied by epidemics. Consequently, this period is particularly suitable for studying the genetic composition, morbidity and mortality of human populations. For the end of phase 2, we envisage an integrative model that brings together different lines of evidence. By considering archaeological and ecological aspects deriving from other subprojects, we anticipate that this model helps to understand if and how disease and suffering were triggers and/or consequences of substantial socio-economic change in the past.

Interrelation between pathogens, disease burden and genetic composition of ancient populationsFig. 1: The complex interrelation between pathogens, disease burden and genetic composition of ancient populations: We will combine the results obtained from the ancient DNA analyses of pathogens and human hosts with those from palaeopathological investigations of skeletal remains. These different, yet related, research approaches will be addressed in separate work packages. The overall results will be analysed and evaluated in a joint work package (Illustration: K. Fuchs).

With respect to the main research questions of the 2nd CRC phase, our results will cover a central area within the sensitive human-environmental interaction system (Fig. 1). Driven by and having impact on different factors of human ecology, health and disease form the connection between several parameters of transformation anatomies (e.g. environment, demography, networks, economy). This research program can only be implemented in cooperation with the CRC 1266 subprojects A1-2 (theory and modelling), B1-D2 (samples, archaeological transformations), F1-3 (climate, ecology, diet), F6 (demography), G1 (chronology), and Z2 (data curation and analyses).


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