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Skeletons may reveal details about Asian health across 10,000 years

Terraced rice field landscape near Sapa in Vietnam. / Blue Planet Studio

Sometimes the past holds the key to the future. No one is more keenly aware of this than Qian Wang, head of the new Global History of Health Project – Asia Module. He spends the bulk of his days studying what was, and how it impacts us today.

With a new $500,000, 10-year grant from the International Research Center for Bioarchaeology at Jilin University in China, this Texas A&M College of Dentistry faculty member will lead a worldwide network of researchers in gathering and studying large datasets that reveal health, disease and lifestyle in Asia over the last 10,000 years.

The Asia Module, which launched in May during a summit at Jilin University, expands the scope of the Global History of Health Project. The first module, the West Hemisphere Project, was initiated by Richard Steckel and colleagues in 1988. Since then, an international collaboration consisting of more than 500 researchers has systematically documented and logged more than 30,000 specimens dating back 6,000 years in the Western Hemisphere — the Americas — and Europe. Participation entails long-term effort: Previous modules such as the Western Hemisphere Project and the European Project lasted 14 and 17 years, respectively.

Now researchers will comb through expansive skeletal collections from China, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, India, Southeast Asia, Russia and beyond, assessing skeletal and dental health. They’ll look for patterns in caries, periodontal disease, degenerative joint diseases, along with signs of poor nutrition and trauma. The collections span centuries, ranging from the pre-agriculture age to modernization.

Recording preliminary data is only a first step. Context comes next, and this is possible because of the myriad perspectives represented among two dozen research disciplines: pathology, osteology, economics, sociology, biochemistry and more. Wang is particularly interested in exploring oral health and lifestyle: Researchers will look to see if certain populations experienced decay, abscesses, tooth loss and temporomandibular joint disorders more than others and even go so far as to analyze the influence of diet, geographic location and environment.

“The inclusion of Asia’s story will not only enrich the skeletal and oral health status over generations in recent human history in an evolutionary sense,” says Wang, associate professor in biomedical sciences at Texas A&M College of Dentistry, “but it also expands existing databases for use by global and local health agencies on policy making for contemporary populations with different socioeconomic statuses.”