Curriculum Vitae Biosketch

  • Associate Professor, Anthropology Department


Research Statement

My primary research focus is the relationship between people and their environments across time.  I study both how humans have impacted their environments and the return effects for people, especially as they are expressed through ancient disease patterns. For many years, I have been exploring the impact of cycles of epidemic disease on human demography and life history in the Holocene (e.g Paine 2000; Bentley et al. 2002; Paine and Boldsen 2002, 2006; Paine and Storey 2005, 2006, in press).  This effort has two goals: first, to examine the specific question of epidemic disease impact on Holocene demography and life histories, and second, to use this specific problem to elucidate and address general problems in the field of paleodemography. 

I am currently working on two projects focused on the impact of ancient disease.  The first is based on the ‘Historical Perspectives on Human Demography’ database.  Using demographic projections to test hypotheses about increasing frequency of epidemic events over time, I have developed a series a theories about the changing shape of child mortality and its impact on child reproductive value and selective pressure on age-at-first-reproduction.  These theories may contribute to our understanding of the 19th century demographic transition in Europe.  I am currently writing a pair of papers outlining them.  The next step is to test my initial hypotheses about epidemic frequency and childhood disease using ancient DNA analysis. O’Rourke and I will submit a series grant proposals to accomplish this.  We will begin our analyses on skeletal samples from a pair of Medieval Danish cemeteries I have obtained, with permission to perform the aDNA analyses, from the University of Southern Denmark. 

The second project tests a theory of a late Classic disease outbreak at Teotihuacan.   At its height, between 350-500 CE, Teotihuacan was by far the largest, most important city in Mesoamerica.  Between the late 6th century and the early 7th century, the city’s population fell dramatically and dispersed into enclaves or on the periphery of Teotihuacan’s abandoned ceremonial center. Theories to explain Teotihuacan’s decline have proven difficult to test archaeologically.  One factor that has received little attention, historically, is the possible role of epidemic disease, which most archaeologists and historians have considered a strictly post-Contact phenomenon. Recently, Acuna-Soto and colleagues proposed that epidemics in 1545-48 and 1576-80, which 16th century records refer to as the Huey Cocoliztli, were caused by a hemorrhagic fever of New World origin. They argue further, based on reconstructed drought patterns, that the same disease may have precipitated the decline of Classic period Teotihuacan.

I provided an initial test of the Cocolitzli hypothesis (Paine 2010, in prep) by generating death distributions for a large-scale outbreak using demographic projections, similar to the ones I am using in the European epidemic frequency study above.  I compared the model death distributions to early and late phase skeletal age-at-death distributions from the Tlajinga 33 apartment compound at Teotihuacan.  The early phase distribution resembled the death distribution of a stable projection.  The late phase distribution is dramatically closer to the death distribution of the epidemic model, though it is still statistically distinct.  Rather than refuting the Cocoliztli hypothesis, my work seems to support it.  This study indicates that additional testing of the Cocoliztli hypothesis is warranted.  O’Rourke and I plan to propose a study employing ancient DNA analysis, to attempt to identify arenavirus (or other causes of hemorrhagic fevers) in the late-phase skeletons of Tlajinga 33.


Research Keywords

  • paleodemography, Interest Level: 5
  • ancient epidemic disease, Interest Level: 5
  • Mesoamerica, Interest Level: 3
  • Europe, Interest Level: 3