Gerszten Lab Research

Paleopathology - The study of diseases in antiquity


Malaria: A Native Pre-Columbian American Disease (pdf)

The investigation of human disease in antiquity has been an ongoing project in the Department of Pathology since 1969. Some thirty students have done thesis investigations for a doctoral or a master's degree in paleopathology. The materials, derived from the autopsy of more than 3,000 Andean mummies covers the entire spectrum of human disease utilizing the latest medical laboratory techniques.

Skeleton - adult

The MCV Paleopathology Laboratory is world-renowned as a center for the study of soft human tissue and provides consultation to specialists and students in many branches of medicine. Numerous contributions in the history of disease have been made to the fields of physical anthropology and forensic medicine. The department is a clearinghouse for paleopathology research through its sponsorship of the Paleopathology Club of the International Academy of Pathology, contributing many papers, books, and book chapters. Our department hosts international seminars in paleopathology, and our faculty members actively participate in academic seminars here and abroad. We develop computer-based educational materials, including several CDs. Our department has become an international leader in Paleopathology studies utilizing modern laboratory methodology for diagnosis and identification of early Americans' pathology.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine has opened studies in paleopathology for residents in pathology as well as graduate and medical students. These students spend one or two months working on projects and present their findings at national and international meetings. Such studies have also allowed numerous American, Peruvian, Chilean, and other international students, to participate in projects and obtain material for a master's or doctoral thesis.

Mummified Child

International Research in South American Paleopathology

The tradition of international research in South American paleopathology began with the work of Max Uhle (Germany) at the beginning of the 1900's. It continued for the next several decades with Ales Hrdlicka (United States) and José Imbelloni (Argentina). Today there are numerous international researchers working on a variety of projects, from osteopathology to paleodiet, and from parasite identification to soft-tissue research. It is in this latter area that the arid west coast of the continent has provided a vast resource for research.



An important aspect of research studies in South America includes the health problems of pre-Columbian Indians, mainly from the Andean area. The studies incorporate the relationships of various health issues over time within different societies and environments in the region. To accomplish this, American investigators join professionals from universities and museums in the Andean area of South America. These studies are unique in that soft tissues are available, an aspect of study not commonly seen elsewhere, and these tissue studies are related to patterns spanning a 10,000 year period. Such studies relate with changes in social structures from early hunter/gatherers to different levels of society seen in pre-Columbian empires. They also determine the effects on populations of the European invasion during colonial and independent governments.

Working with local physicians it is possible to use modern rural hospital patients to establish baseline studies. In many localities, living conditions have changed little from early colonial days.


Contact Us

Enrique  Gerszten, MD

Enrique Gerszten, MD

Autopsy Pathology and Paleopathology
Emeritus Professor of Pathology
Co-Director of Paleopathology Research Laboratory
Office: (804) 828-9746
Fax: (804) 828-9749