Speaking Bones: Unearthing Ancient Stories of Illness and Disease

From mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue to chronic bacterial infections such as yaws, Southeast Asia is home to a wide range of tropical diseases. For a long time, the arrival in the region of these and other dangerous tropical diseases was believed to be connected to the introduction of agriculture. But how long have these diseases really been around for? How are they connected to the region’s fluctuating social and environmental conditions? And how have they impacted the human populations of Southeast Asia over time?

Joining Dr Natali Pearson on SSEAC Stories, bioarchaeologist Dr Melandri Vlok sheds light on the complex science of paleoepidemiology and its use of advanced analytical practices such as DNA ancestry, skeletal studies, and teeth calculus to uncover ancient stories of illness and disease. She explains that far from being mere remnants of the past, archaeological human remains can help us understand the evolution and spread of pathogens, and inform strategies to curb the spread of infectious diseases in human populations.

About Melandri Vlok:

Dr Melandri Vlok is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. Melandri specialises in palaeopathology/ bioarchaeology and researches the implications for migration and trade on the presence of infectious and nutritional diseases in past populations in Asia. Melandri’s work, funded by grant bodies including National Geographic and the Royal Society of New Zealand, has involved the analysis of human skeletal remains from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand and the Philippines. She is also involved with repatriation efforts focused on returning Māori and Moriori ancestral remains to iwi and imi (tribes) in New Zealand.

For more information or to browse additional resources, visit the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s website: www.sydney.edu.au/sseac.

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