CEM Seminar- Sharon DeWitte

Epidemics Past and Present: What Historic Diseases Tell Us About Future Threats

Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of South Carolina
Epidemics past and present: What historic diseases tell us about future threats


The current devastating outbreak of Ebola has focused the world’s attention on the dangers of emerging infectious diseases. Dozens of diseases have emerged in recent decades, and researchers have primarily focused their attention on determining when, where, and why new diseases will emerge. However, emerging diseases are not just a recent phenomenon in human populations. Research on past diseases, using bioarchaeological and paleomicrobiological approaches, can deepen the temporal scope of our understanding of the causes and consequences of emerging diseases. Dr. DeWitte’s research over the last decade has focused on the medieval Black Death, using skeletal samples of people who died at the time of the 14th-century epidemic. Her paleodemographic work has revealed variation in risks of mortality during the Black Death and the demographic and health consequences of the epidemic. She is also part of a collaborative ancient DNA project investigating the molecular biology of the pathogen that caused the Black Death. Dr. DeWitte will discuss how bioarchaeological research on past epidemics such as the Black Death can improve our understanding of emerging diseases and human-pathogen coevolution in general, and the potential it has to provide tools for dealing with disease in living populations.
Sharon N. DeWitte is a biological anthropologist with interests in bioarchaeology, paleodemography, and paleoepidemiology. For over a decade, she has been investigating the mortality patterns, demographic context, and consequences of medieval plague epidemics, including the Black Death of 1347-1351. By applying hazard analysis to large skeletal samples from Europe, DeWitte is able to examine population-level phenomena associated with past crisis mortality events, including the effects of biological factors such as age and sex on risks of death during epidemics as devastating as the Black Death and how epidemics shape demography and health. Her current project, which examines the context of the emergence of the Black Death and its effects on the medieval population of London is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. DeWitte holds a PhD in Anthropology from the Pennsylvania State University and is currently an Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina.