Odyssey in the evolution of a paleopathologist
A recent report suggesting perceived limitations of and opportunities in the study of paleopathology suggested the importance of incorporation of scientific methodologies. It seems reasonable to also explore how those methodologies are developed and, indeed, how one approaches paleopathology as a science. The development of one such paleopathologist is delineated from his serendipitous observations to application of hypothesis generation and subsequent testing approach developed during basic medical science education. This approach resulted in recognition of how much he thought he knew was actually contrary to the facts. A critical factor was the collaborative approach with specialists in other fields, wherein linguistic confusion was overcome and perspectives refined by point–counterpoint analysis of hypotheses. The limited reliability of tertiary information was clearly exposed through examination of primary sources – original articles rather than what might be referred to as "meta-analyses".
It became clear that linguistics was not the only challenge; application of techniques had to be observed and validated. Without validation one might obtain precision (method repeatedly reveals same results) but at the expense of accuracy (assurance that the method actually assesses the question). Paleontological studies are generally limited to examination of organisms and their traces. Archeologically based studies incorporate additional sources of information (e.g., historic), but are no less subject to such semantic and methodological issues. Proof of concept studies provided new windows to recognition not only of disease but to previous anatomical challenges (e.g., localization of direct muscle attachment sites and distribution). Trans-phylogenetic representation of disease falsified speculation that "evolution" would preclude analysis through time. Pathology is an intrinsic component of life and transcends both species and time. Knowledge gained in a given species and time can be applied to similar disease manifestations in other species in modern time. Once speculations were tested and either verified or falsified, paleo-epidemiologic approach allowed identification of patterns of spread and even application of that knowledge to recognition of human migration patterns. Proof of concept studies provided new windows to recognition not only of disease but to previous anatomical challenges (e.g., localization of direct muscle attachment sites and distribution).