Halcrow, Siân Ellen, 2006. Subadult health and disease in Late Prehistoric Mainland Southeast Asia.
There is a general belief that a decline in health of prehistoric people occurred with the adoption and intensification of agriculture. However, recent bioarchaeological research in Southeast Asia does not seem to fit this model. An investigation of subadult health is particularly useful to assess this issue because immature individuals are very responsive to environmental changes. The increase of archaeological investigation in this region has provided an adequate sample to address this important aspect of human health using subadults. The aim of this thesis was to produce a synthesis of subadult health and disease from late prehistoric Mainland Southeast Asia and assess whether there was evidence for a change in health with agricultural intensification. The samples, comprising a total 325 individuals, are from seven sites in Thailand, six from the Northeast and one from the Southeast coast, and collectively span from c. 4000 to 1500 B.P. Two hypotheses were developed based on previous bioarchaeological research in Southeast Asia. Firstly, there would be maintenance in health with the intensification of agriculture. Secondly, contrary to the first hypothesis, an increase in infectious disease in the later samples was predicted.
A biocultural research approach was used, where health and disease were assessed in relationship to evidence of the natural and cultural milieu. A comparative analysis of health indicators was carried out among the sites to assess whether there were any changes in health over time in response to environmental changes. Non-specific indicators of health were used in the assessment of palaeodemography, growth, growth disruption, dental health and skeletal pathology.
Analysis of mortality, fertility, growth, growth disruption and dental health found no differences among the sites that could be explained by temporality. These results support the first hypothesis, that health was maintained. The skeletal pathology results tentatively suggested an increase in these indicators in the later sites. An analysis of multiple indicators of stress in the populations indicated a possible decline in health, interpreted with environmental evidence suggesting an increase of infectious disease at the later sites. However, they suggest that the earliest site of Khok Phanom Di had extremely poor health. Thus, the second hypothesis was only partially supported.
Environmental evidence was used to provide possible explanations for these results. The heterogeneity of the health indicators support recent interpretations of localised environments of the sites. Also, retention of a broad-spectrum subsistence economy with agriculture may have overridden some of these changes that were seen in other parts of the world. Khok Phanom Di and the later sites were undergoing major changes in their natural and cultural environment, which could have resulted in an increase of infectious disease. These health results are consistent with suggestions that Khok Phanom Di was a distinct genetic population from those at the Northeast Thai sites. This biocultural interpretation emphasises the importance of understanding the environmental context in which these people lived.