Porto in Times of Cholera and War: A Bioarchaeological Approach to Human Frailty

Principal researcher: Francisca Alves Cardoso

Research group: Practices and Politics of Culture


Archaeothanatology | Human remains | Metogenomic | Health

Funding Institution

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia


Instituições de colaboração: Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Cranfield Forensic Institute (Cranfield University), Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela



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With the recent awakening of the COVID19 pandemic, human frailty has become a prominent topic in the social and human sciences. Events such as these have a long standing memory, as was the case of the 14th century Black Death, 19th-century cholera or the 1918 influenzas. Understanding how humans adapt to these catastrophic situations in the past is important for the living population since biological indicators are essential to understand the correlation between health, morbidity, and mortality. Supported by new research developments in bioanthropology, borrowing from the concept of the social production of health, and the understanding that diseases have powerful social determinants, a significant number of studies on human skeletal frailty have emerged, addressing how humans adapted to certain stressors in the past. This approach combines epidemiological concepts of frailty in living human individuals, with the necessary adequacy for its use when assessing past populations. It reinforces the hypothesis that biological resilient individuals, despite multiple stressors, would survive longer, but would have increased frailty. We find a similar paradox in modern populations (morbidity‐mortality paradox) when comparing sex-specific health patterns including studies related to COVID19. Exploring past and present populations when facing challenging events, allows for comparisons and discussion on the origins, evolution and management of similar conditions through time.
A holistic and biocultural approach to the interpretation of diseases in the past, reinforcing the idea that studying mortality and morbidity is not limited to interpreting the biological data, but that these data must be contextualized within a wider social and cultural context. Diseases and death are often associated with social inequalities and cultural practices are known to have been shaped by disease. Consequently, death by disease is often a stigma of social and cultural marginalization, both in the past and in the present, as shown by data on the present pandemic. This project aims to focus on human frailty assessment in the past, and how this relates to a person’s ability to cope with environmental constraints. A strong connotation with the present COVID19 pandemic allows to compare and discern past events and foresee future behaviours. In addition, but no less relevant, it allows access to the environmental conditions' impact on mortality.
The project uses a multimethodological approach combining bioanthropology, bioarchaeology, biomolecular, biogeochemical, archaeological and archival analysis. It will study an archaeological collection associated to the hospital cemetery of the 3rd Order of Our Lady of CARMO, located in Carlos Alberto Square in Porto (Portugal). It will focus on the bioanthropological analysis of the human remains exhumed , aggregating data on biological (sex and age at death) and pathological profiles, kinship and also on diet and mobility patterns. Additionally, these data will be combined, contrasted, and confirmed with historical-archaeological data, and placed into context as an emphasis will also be placed on the archaeological analysis of the context, burial spaces and material culture found.
Chronologically, this collection is inserted between the years 1801 and 1869, a period with remarkable historical events in Portuguese history, particularly in the city of Oporto, namely the European Napoleonic Wars, the Oporto Siege during the Civil Revolution, and the Cholera epidemic. Due to its characteristics, both the context and the collection, are unique in Portugal, consisting of the perfect combination for a holistic assessment of human frailty.


Ana Maria Lopez Parra (Complutense University of Madrid)

André Bragão (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)

PhD students Full members

Anne Malcherek

Practices and Politics of Culture

Claudia Gomes (Complutense University of Madrid)

César López Matayoshi (Complutense University of Madrid)

Eduardo Arroyo Pardo (Complutense University of Madrid)

Elvira Mangas Carrasco (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela)

Full members

Joana Lucas

Practices and Politics of Culture

Maura Pellegrini

Nicholas Marquez-Grant (Cranfield University)

Olalla Lopez-Costas (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela)

Rodrigo Banha da Silva (NOVA FCSH)

Sara Palomo Díez (Complutense University of Madrid)

PhD students Full members

Steffi Vassallo

Practices and Politics of Culture

Associated researchers

Sílvia Casimiro

Environment, Sustainability and Ethnography