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Scientists Track 15,000 Years’ Worth of Ear Infections

Thursday, May 21, 2020

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Haaretz reports that a study of human remains buried in the Levant between 15,000 and 100 years ago suggests that the onset of agriculture—and the corresponding decrease of variety and increase of grains in the diet—may not have harmed people’s health as previously thought. Hila May of Tel Aviv University and her colleagues examined the internal wall of the middle ears of the remains to look for evidence of chronic ear infections, which are usually brought on by cold or flu. The researchers found that almost 70 percent of the hunter-gatherers, who are likely to have lived in crowded caves or huts, suffered from ear infections. The rate of infection dropped to 55 percent during the early Neolithic period, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, but spiked to 80 percent some 6,000 years ago. May suggests this rise in illness could have been caused by the onset of a cooler, wetter climate, and the introduction of dairy products to the diet. By the Roman period, as people built bigger homes and animals were moved outside, she added, the rate of ear infection dropped to about 50 percent, where it remains today. To read about how the adoption of agriculture precipitated biological changes in Neolithic populations, go to "You Say What You Eat."

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