Della Collins Cook

Della Collins Cook

Professor Emeritus, Anthropology


  • Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1976
  • M.A., University of Chicago, 1971
  • A.B., Cornell University, 1969

About Della Collins Cook

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 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. Prof. Rika Kaestle and I continue to pursue this fascinating topic.

I participated in Prof. Anne Pyburn’s excavation at Chau Hiix, Belize from 1993 to 2006. 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, artifacts made from human bones, and osteobiography of unusual persons in the ancient Midwest. I am presently collaborating with colleagues at Museu Nacional and FIOCRUZ on a study of a slave cemetery in Rio de Janeiro.

Selected Publications

2022. Meningiomas in Ancient Human Populations. With Marie Elaine Danforth. Cancers (Basel) 14(4):1058. doi: 10.3390/cancers14041058

2020. A Young Man Twice Burned: a Deviant Burial from West-Central Illinois. With Laura Gano, Kristin M. Hedman, Susan Spencer Helfrich, and Andrew R. Thompson. In: The Odd, the Unusual, and the Strange: Bioarchaeological Explorations of Atypical Burials. Betsinger T.K., Scott A.B. and A. Tsaliki eds. Gainesville University Press of Florida. Pp.66-89.

2019. The youngest meningioma? A historic Maya adolescent from Tipu, Belize. With Marie Elaine Danforth, Kelly Kramer, and Mark N. Cohen. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 29:1042-1050.

2016. Isotopic study of geographic origins and diet of enslaved Africans buried in two Brazilian cemeteries. Journal of Archaeological Science 70:82-90. With Murilo Q. R. Bastos, Ricardo V. Santos, Sheila M. F. M. de Souza, Claudia Rodrigues-Carvalho, Robert H. Tykot, and Roberto V. Santos.

2015. Ancient DNA from the Schild site in Illinois: Implications for the Mississippian transition in the Lower Illinois River Valley. With Austin W. Reynolds, Jennifer A. Raff, Deborah A. Bolnick, and Fredericka A. Kaestle. Am J Phys Anthropol.156(3):434-48. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22668.

2015. Pretos Novos: Evidence for African Oral Hygiene Practices in Brazil,1769–1830. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 25: 238–244: With Murilo Q. R. Bastos, Camile Lopes, Sheila Mendonça de Souza and Ricardo Ventura Santos. DOI: 10.1002/oa.2278 (published online 2012)

2015. Vessel, Ornament, Mask or Rattle? Reconstructing a Mississippian Worked Bone Object from the Angel Site. With Cheryl Ann Munson. In: Transforming the Dead: Culturally Modified Bone in the Prehistoric Midwest. Eve A. Hargrave, Shirley J. Schermer, Kristin M. Hedman and Robin M. Lillie, eds. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Pp. 152-172.

2015. Modification of Human Bone from Mississippian Caborn-Welborn Phase Sites in Southwestern Indiana and West-Central Kentucky. With Cheryl Ann Munson and Mary Lucas Powell. In: Transforming the Dead: Culturally Modified Bone in the Prehistoric Midwest. Eve A. Hargrave, Shirley J. Schermer, Kristin M. Hedman and Robin M. Lillie, eds. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Pp. 173-190.

2015. Life after Death: A Brief History of Human Bone Tools in Sub-Mound 51 at Cahokia. With Eve A. Hargrave. In: Transforming the Dead: Culturally Modified Bone in the Prehistoric Midwest. Eve A. Hargrave, Shirley J. Schermer, Kristin M. Hedman and Robin M. Lillie, eds. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Pp.129-140.

2015. Paleopathology. In: Basics in Human Evolution. Michael P. Meuhlenbein, editor. Academic Press. Pp. 427-447.

2014. Pre-Columbian mycobacterial genomes reveal seals as a source of New World human tuberculosis. Nature Aug 20. doi: 10.1038/nature13591. Bos KI, Harkins KM, Herbig A, Coscolla M, Weber N, Comas I, Forrest SA, Bryant JM, Harris SR, Schuenemann VJ, Campbell TJ, Majander K, Wilbur AK, Guichon RA, Wolfe Steadman DL, Cook DC, Niemann S, Behr MA, Zumarraga M, Bastida R, Huson D, Nieselt K, Young D, Parkhill J, Buikstra JE, Gagneux S, Stone AC, Krause J.

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. Jane E. Buikstra and Lane A Beck, eds. Elsevier: Amsterdam. Pp. 27-72.