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Dissertation Proposal Defense, Elena Watson, “A Paleopathological Investigation on the Presence of Malaria in Medieval Nubia and its Skeletal Manifestation”

April 28 @ 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm

A Paleopathological Investigation on the Presence of Malaria in Medieval Nubia and its Skeletal Manifestation

Abstract: “Malaria has a pervasive presence around the world that has afflicted generations of people living in environments conducive to the mosquito, which transmits the disease-causing parasite. Within these contexts, there is a dynamic and interdependent interaction between human hosts, mosquito vectors, and malarial parasites as human activity within the environment can further influence risk and exposure to this disease. For people living in the Nile River Valley, malaria has historically had a significant effect on morbidity and mortality. In ancient Nubia, malaria is believed to have posed a high burden and risk during the medieval period (500–1500 CE) due to an increase in human population and settlement along the Nile River facilitated by an intensification of saqia water-wheel irrigation agriculture. These shifts in human population and farming practice with an accompanying increase in standing water would have likely created conditions favorable for an increase in mosquito populations and concomitantly, malaria.

The proposed research will investigate hypothesized malarial infection in Nubia during the medieval period and the potential impact of these events using paleopathological approaches and a biocultural framework. This dissertation will focus on the skeletal remains excavated from the site of Mis Island, located near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile River, which is believed to have practiced saqia agriculture during the medieval period based on excavated archaeological material. The hypothesized presence of malaria will also be compared between Mis Island and the contemporary Upper Nubian site Kulubnarti to examine interactions between malaria, human activity (e.g., cultivation strategies), and ecological contexts. To investigate the presence of malarial infection, this research will use a method that entails examining skeletal remains for a series of five lesions associated with the disease and using a diagnostic outcome algorithm to infer how many and which individuals may have been infected with malaria. The prevalence of hypothesized malaria will be explored across the sites’ cemeteries and age and sex cohorts. Investigating the dynamics of malaria in medieval Nubia will build on the scholarship of health conditions for populations living in the Nile River Valley at the time and contribute insight into the potential influence of human activity on malarial risk during the medieval period.

The proposed dissertation will also explore the manifestation of the skeletal lesions implicated in malarial infection. This research will examine the association among these lesions, and their relationship with the affected individual’s age, to contribute further insight into their formation and patterns of expression. For one of these lesions—femoral cribra—there is a need to further understand variation in the lesion’s external appearance, the bone processes underlying its expression, and the role an individual’s age may have in the lesion’s manifestation. The research will therefore visually examine femoral cribra lesions for several variables possibly representing lesion “severity” and “activity” and assess their association with the age of the individual. Using micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) methods, three-dimensional scans will be acquired from a subsample of femora and a series of variables that reflect trabecular bone microarchitecture will be derived from the region underlying the lesion. This information will contribute to the relationship between changes visible from femoral cribra’s external surface and the types of bone processes occurring at the trabecular structural level.”


This dissertation proposal defense will be held via Zoom. If you would like to participate in the defense, please contact Elena Watson at watso219@msu.edu for video meeting details.


April 28
1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Event Category:


Video Conference