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Department of American Studies College of Arts and Sciences

Della Collins Cook « Committee on NAIS

Picture of Della Collins Cook

Professor of Anthropology

Office: Student Building 260
Phone: (812) 855-6368
E-mail: cook at


My work in skeletal biology applies insights drawn from health studies of modern humans to the study of ancient peoples. I am particularly interested in the infectious diseases that affect the skeleton and in developmental defects in the teeth. I began working in 1970 on the relationship between subsistence and health by comparing limb bone lengths, and by inference, stature, in children from two prehistoric Midwestern cemetery sites that pre-dated and post-dated the beginning of heavy dependence on maize. Was the hunting and gathering way of life the original good life, as it is often portrayed? My research suggests that a marked deterioration in health attends the adoption of agriculture, but that at least some agricultural groups suffered few health consequences after the use of maize was established. Paleopathology of Woodland and Mississippian Indians in the Midwest continues to be the focus of my research. My most recent work with several colleagues applies ancient DNA technology to understanding the epidemiology of tuberculosis among Mississippian maize farmers.

Early in my career I characterized the diseases that leave evidence on bone according to their epidemiological characteristics, and I applied the models that resulted to the evidence for disease in prehistoric populations. A number of interesting observations followed. My work suggested that non-venereal syphilis was endemic in the ancient Midwest. More recently I have explored evidence for congenital transmission of treponemal disease in later prehistory in the Americas as well as in slave populations from Barbados. Mary Lucas Powell and I have published an edited volume. My work on the vertebrae of Australopithecus afarensis showed that vertebral lesions most resemble Scheuermann’s disease, a condition that follows strenuous athletic activity in adolescents. Its presence in australopithecines suggests that strenuous climbing or lifting was part of their behavioral repertoire. Research in collaboration with J.E. Buikstra in the 1980s suggested that tuberculosis, or a tuberculosis-like disease, appeared on the New World only after there were population aggregates of tens of thousands of people. Mark Braun, Susan Pfeiffer and I were able to confirm this diagnosis using ancient DNA in 1998.

Since 1993 I have participated in Prof. Anne Pyburn’s excavation at Chau Hiix, Belize. We have a field school there every other spring semester, allowing my students to gain experience in excavating burials. We have begun to publish the archaeology and physical anthropology of this unusual ancient Maya population. I am interested in mortuary practices, and have written on funerary masks and house floor burials in Midwestern sites. Cheryl Munson and I are currently working on a project on artifacts made from human bones from Mississippian sites in the Ohio Valley, and I am very interested in using physical anthropology to understand aspects of ancient beliefs and behaviors.

Relevant Courses

  • B472 Bioanthropology of the Aboriginal Americas

Publication Highlights

Submitted. The ‘African Queen,’ a Portuguese Mystery. In The Bioarchaeology of Individuals, ed. Ann Lucy Stodder and Ann M. Palkovich. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. With Mary Lucas Powell, Maia M. Langley, Jennifer Raff, Susan D. Spencer and Frederika Kaestle.

Submitted. Kennewick Man: the Natural Shocks that Flesh is Heir to. Ms. prepared for a volume on the Kennewick restudy, edited by D. Owsley and R. Jantz.

Submitted. Roy L. Moodie: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient Disease. Ms. prepared for a volume tentatively titled History of Paleopathology, ed. J. Buikstra and C. Roberts.

2009. Hierarchies and Heterarchies of Food Consumption: Stable Isotopic Evidence from Chau Hiix and the Northern Belize Region. Latin American Antiquity 20/1. With Jessica Z. Metcalfe, Christine D. White, Fred J. Longstaffe, and Gabriel Wrobel.

2008. Review of Native American Place-Names in Indiana (McCafferty). Journal of Folklore Research Reviews.

2008. Thermally Induced Changes in the Stable Carbon- and Nitrogen-isotope Ratios of Charred Bones. In The Analysis of Burned Human Remains, ed. Christopher W. Schmidt and Steven A. Symes, 95-108. Amsterdam: Academic. With Mark R. Schurr and Robert G. Hayes.

2007. Incidence of Trachoma in Two Prehistoric Lower Illinois River Valley Populations. Paleopathology Newsletter 138:9-12. With Julie Euber and Susan Dale Spencer.

2007. Maize and Mississippians in the Midwest: Twenty Years Later. In Ancient Health: Skeletal Indicators of Agriculture and Economic Intensification, ed. Mark Nathan Cohen and Gillian Crane-Kramer, 10-19. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

2006. Invisible Hands: Women in Bioarchaeology. In Bioarchaeology: The Contextual Study of Human Remains, ed. Jane E. Buikstra and Lane A Beck, 131-93. Amsterdam: Elsevier. With M. L. Powell, J. E. Buikstra, G. Bogdan, M. M. Castro, P. D. Horne, D. R. Hunt, R. T. Koritzer, S. Ferraz Mendonça de Souza, M. K. Sandford, L. Saunders, G. Aparecida Malerba Sene, L. Sullivan, and J. J. Swetnam.

2006. The Evolution of American Paleopathology. In Bioarchaeology: The Contextual Study of Human Remains, ed. Jane E. Buikstra and Lane A Beck, 281-322. Amsterdam: Elsevier. With Mary Lucas Powell.

2006. The Old Physical Anthropology and the New World: A Look at the Accomplishments of an Antiquated Paradigm. In Bioarchaeology: The Contextual Study of Human Remains, ed. Jane E. Buikstra and Lane A Beck, 27-72. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

2006. Tuberculosis in the New World: A Study of Ribs from the Schild Mississippian Population, West-Central Illinois. Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz 101 (Suppl. II):25-27. With J. Raff and F. Kaestle.

2006. Introduction. Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz 101 (Suppl. II):5-7. With M. L. Powell.

2006. Joe Gay Mound Group, Crematory A Excavations. In Illinois Hopewell and Late Woodland Mounds: The Excavations of Gregory Perino, ed. Kenneth Farnsworth, ITARP Studies in Archaeology 4:498-500. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. With A. Palkovich.

2006. Bioanthropology Bibliography: Studies of Human Remains and Mortuary Practices that Use Perino Mound-Excavation Data. In Illinois Hopewell and Late Woodland Mounds: The Excavations of Gregory Perino, ed. Kenneth Farnsworth, ITARP Studies in Archaeology 4:125-136. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

2005. Transitory Mummies: Hopewell Tombs and the Conservation of the Dead. Journal of Biological Research VXXX:191-93.

2005. The Myth of Syphilis: A Natural History of North American Treponematosis, ed. Mary Lucas Powell and Della Collins Cook. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.