A paleopathologist is one who studies old and diseased things, specifically, diseases of human and animal as inferred from recent or fossilized skeletal remains.
From the Renaissance to the mid nineteenth century, there was increasing reference to ancient disease, initially within prehistoric animals although later the importance of studying the antiquity of human disease began to be emphasised. The true genesis of the field of human palaeopathology is generally considered to occur between the mid nineteenth century and World War I when a number of pioneering physicians and anthropologists clarified the medical nature of ancient skeletal pathologies. This work was consolidated between the world wars with methods such as radiology, histology and serology being applied more frequently, improving diagnosis and accuracy with the introduction of statistical analysis. It was at this point that palaeopathology can truly be considered to have become a scientific discipline.
After World War II palaeopathology began to be viewed in a different way: as an important tool for the understanding of past populations, and it was at this stage that the discipline began to be related to epidemiology and demography. The study of DNA also began to add new information to what was already known about ancient disease.
Human Osteopathology is classified into several general groups:
Whilst traumatic injuries such as broken and malformed bones can be easy to spot, evidence of other conditions, for example infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis, can also be found in bones. Arthropathies, that is joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and gout, are also not uncommon.
Archaeologists use paleopathology as one of their main tools for understanding the lives of ancient peoples. For example, cranial deformation is evident in the skulls of the Maya, showing that they considered a person beautiful if they had a straight line connecting their nose with their forehead. Another pathology common to Mesoamerica is seen in women. Bone spurs and other deformities in the knees, toes, and backs of women show that their days spent grinding maize to make flour takes its toll on their bodies. Also, evidence for trepanation, or drilling holes in the skull to relieve excess pressure, is also common. Skulls with multiple holes show that some patients survived this procedure many times, because the bone has begun to knit back together.