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Meggan M. Bullock

The Effects of Urbanism on the Health and Demography of the Postclassic Population of Cholula, Puebla
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Figure 1. Map of México showing study area.

Research Year:  2004
Culture:  Cholulteca
Chronology:  Postclassic
Location:  Puebla, México
Site:  Cholula

Table of Contents

Mortality in Preindustrial Old World Cities
The Anthropological Debate over the Relationship between Health and Cultural Evolution
Mortality in the Postclassic Cholula Population
Pathological Lesions and Mortality
Porotic Hyperostosis and Cribra Orbitalia
Infectious Lesions
Enamel Hypoplasias
List of Figures
List of Tables
Sources Cited


The debate regarding the effects of urbanism on the health of preindustrial populations has a long history, which began in the 17th century when an individual named Graunt conducted an early demographic study of London using parish records of baptisms and burials. Based on his findings, he concluded that the unhealthy conditions of the urban environment resulted in a mortality rate so high that deaths regularly exceeded births in the city, leading to a natural decrease in population, and that immigration must have been significant to account for the population growth being experienced in London at the time (cited in Galley 1998). Since Graunt, a number of other demographers and anthropologists have repeated the assertion that the high population densities and unsanitary living conditions present in preindustrial cities would have caused elevated morbidity and mortality rates in urban areas (see, for example, Wrigley 1967, 1969; Cohen and Armelagos, eds. 1984; Cohen 1989). However, other researchers have argued that the high mortality rates experienced in some preindustrial Old World cities were largely confined to particular demographic groups, namely young juveniles and immigrants, that were most susceptible to the ravaging effects of epidemic diseases (Sharlin 1978; Landers 1992; Galley 1998). Preindustrial urban health in New World populations is an issue that is central to resolving this debate because it provides a glimpse of urban mortality in the absence of epidemic diseases. Unfortunately, it is also an issue that is difficult to accurately assess given the lack of written demographic records. While several osteological and paleopathological investigations (Storey 1985; 1992; Marquez et al. 2002; Cohen 1989) have made valuable attempts to understand how the process of urbanization could have affected the health of New World urban residents, they have met with overwhelming methodological challenges that make interpreting their findings difficult.

The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., (FAMSI) generously provided a grant to realize a demographic and paleopathological study of Postclassic burials from the prehispanic city of Cholula, Puebla, in central México, in order to address the issue of New World urban health using new methods that overcome the methodological difficulties faced by previous studies. As part of this research, a technique of determining adult age-at-death, which corrects many of the problems associated with traditional aging methods, was utilized. In addition, the relationship of particular pathologies to mortality in the population will be analyzed in order to address the issue of selective mortality, which is a confounding factor in paleopathological studies (Wood et al. 1992). The results presented here are still preliminary and analysis and research are ongoing. However, the data at this time suggest that mortality in New World urban centers may differ from urban health in preindustrial Old World cities.

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Submitted 10/05/2006 by:

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