The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Infectious diseases, beliefs and treatment before antibiotics: examples from Portuguese culture and skeletons


1Life Sciences and CIAS, University of Coimbra, Portugal, 2CONICET – Laboratorio de Ecología Evolutiva Humana, Departamento de Arqueología, Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Despite the scarcity of post-medieval skeletal evidence of infectious diseases in Portugal, written records indicate that these diseases were a common cause of morbidity and death. This study aims to acknowledge the social experiences of patients with infectious diseases in Portugal from the 16th to early 20th centuries. Thus, two types of research were conducted: (1) macroscopic and radiological assessment of bone infection, namely bony evidence of tuberculosis and osteomyelitis, in individuals from the Coimbra Identified Skeletal Collection; (2) medical texts and other publications were researched in order to understand the evolution of medical knowledge and folk beliefs about the scourge of infectious diseases. Findings indicated that skeletons of 3 non-adults with tuberculosis as cause of death mainly presented bone lesions in the vertebral column and lower limbs, while 4 cases of osteomyelitis showed signs of surgery affected the limbs. Historical documents indicate that tuberculosis was considered highly contagious. Sanatoria, good climate and a highly nutritional diet were recommended by physicians while home remedies spread. Lack of morality in society was seen as responsible for the spread of tuberculosis. Young patients expressed their pain in poetry referring to lung dilution, and referred to having feelings such as a mixture of love and hate, and imminence of death. Bone destruction and bone recession from surgery, namely in osteomyelitis, led to disability. Together, osteological data and historical research demonstrate that these diseases were both a social and biological scourge and shaped economic classes by leaving many patients poor and without social support.

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