Possible relationship between porotic hyperostosis and smallpox infections

Full Title:

Possible relationship between porotic hyperostosis and smallpox infections in nineteenth-century populations in the northern frontier, South Africa

Author: Tanya Peckmann
Publication: World Archaeology Volume 35
Date: 2003


Smallpox was a significant shaper of life histories for indigenous South African peoples during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was responsible for the demise of entire social structures and even entire communities of peoples. Survival of smallpox affords the individual natural immunity for the remainder of his or her life. The virus is undetectable in a smallpox survivor, as he or she now possesses the antibodies for that disease. Therefore, positive identification of the viral DNA will be present only in individuals who died from the virus. The historical record combined with the presence of large numbers of individuals exhibiting porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia are the main reasons for investigating the presence of smallpox in the Griqua, Khoe, and ‘Black’ African communities. Although the ancient DNA results were inconclusive for the smallpox virus, its presence in these communities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries combined with the high rates of PH and CO suggest a possible relationship between the cause of death and smallpox epidemics.

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