Research

I am a biological anthropologist with research specialties in paleoepidemiology, paleodemography, bioarchaeology, and human osteology. Paleoepidemiology and paleodemography both use human skeletal material to examine health and demographic patterns, respectively, in past populations. My research focuses on crises mortality in past populations. I am particularly interested in the evolution, ecology, epidemiology, and consequences of disease in past human populations and the ways in which such research informs our understanding of disease in living populations.

Diet and Migration in the Context of Medieval Mortality Crises

I am also involved in a project that combines paleodemographic and stable isotope analyses to investigate temporal patterns of migration and migrant health in the context of mortality crises (e.g., epidemics and famines) in medieval London. This project also examines trends in diet before the Black Death, changes in diet in the aftermath of the epidemic, how dietary resources varied between men and women and by socioeconomic status, and how survival through famine affected subsequent risks of mortality during the Black Death and under non-epidemic conditions.  This project is currently funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation (#9229), the National Science Foundation (BCS-1722491), and Research Councils UK.

Medieval Plague: Emergence, Mortality Patterns, and Demographic Consequences

Much of my research examines medieval plague, including the Black Death (1347-1351 AD). By applying hazard models to data from skeletal samples (including the remains of people who died during plague epidemics), I am interested in determining how biological factors (e.g. age, sex, nutritional status, and health condition) and social factors (e.g. gender and socioeconomic status) influence an individual’s risk of death during epidemics as devastating as the Black Death.  Currently, I am comparing pre- and post-Black Death medieval cemeteries from London to assess the effects of Black Death mortality and post-epidemic standards of living (including decreasing inequities in diet) on health and longevity in the surviving population. I am also examining the factors (social, environmental, and biological) that influenced the emergence of the Black Death in the 14th-century. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1261682), the Wenner-Gren Foundation (#8247), and an American Association of Physical Anthropologists Professional Development Grant.

Click here to view a short TED-Ed lesson based on my research.

Paleogenomics

I am collaborating on a project that is using ancient DNA approaches to examine the identity and molecular evolution of the causative agent of medieval plague.  So far, we have sequenced an entire draft genome of ancient Yersinia pestis from 14th-century Black Death victims buried in London (see our article in Nature). This is the same bacterium that causes modern bubonic plague, and that has affected humans for over 5000 years. This ancient disease allows for an examination of long-term trends in human-pathogen interaction.

Other Research Interests

In addition to my research on medieval mortality crises, I am more generally interested in heterogeneity in frailty and selective mortality and the ways that these can be determined from skeletal data. My work thereby contributes to discussions of the “osteological paradox”. My research program explicitly addresses these issues primarily using collections from medieval England. However, I am not restricted to any particular geographic area or temporal period. For example, I have done collaborative studies of the health effects of the Roman Conquest in Britain and the effect of social status on mortality in Industrial-era London. Ultimately, my research seeks to improve our understanding of intra- and inter-population variation in health in both past and living human populations, and to promote the use of hazard modeling in the field of bioarchaeology.