Historical case studies on pandemics

Learning from the past: new publication by Kiel University’s Cluster of Excellence ROOTS

Whether it’s the plague, cholera or currently COVID-19: epidemics are part of human history. Long before there were vaccinations or microscopes for the investigation of pathogens, societies had to develop coping strategies. These are described in the brochure "Distant Times so Close: Pandemics and Crises reloaded", which is the first in a series of historical-archaeological publications on current topics published by the Cluster of Excellence "ROOTS – Social, Environmental, and Cultural Connectivity in Past Societies" at Kiel University (CAU).

"In a situation like the present, it is worthwhile to look in the past, and remind ourselves of the strategies used by earlier cultures in order to deal with epidemics and/or pandemics," said the cluster spokesperson, archaeologist Professor Johannes Müller, regarding the motivation behind the publication. If modern technologies have reached their limits, for example, if there are still no vaccines or appropriate treatments available, then people of today essentially in the same position as the people centuries ago. The interdisciplinary-oriented brochure, which appears in German and English, contains snapshots ranging from the Neolithic Age, through classical antiquity and to the Middle Ages. The authors are relevant experts from a wide spectrum of subjects represented in the cluster, which equally involves scientists from the natural sciences, life sciences and humanities. In short, easily comprehensible, richly illustrated articles describe significant cases of epidemics, their origins, their developments, surprisingly diverse strategies to cope with them, and last but not least, the culturally enshrined knowledge drawn from contemporary reflections.

Not a modern phenomenon: social upheavals

The contributions aim to provide unexpected insights into what is partly considered well-known. "For example, it is hardly remembered that in his epic poem, the Iliad, the Greek poet Homer constructed his narrative of the Trojan War around the outbreak of an epidemic," reported Professor Lutz Käppel. "The root of the tragedy in the Iliad, all of the pointless killing and dying, ultimately lies in the failure to tackle the epidemic on a socially-equitable basis, and not in the medical situation itself." The real danger for a community – according to this work from the beginnings of European literary history – lies in the internal social distortion of interests, rather than the actual epidemic. In his new interpretation of the work, Käppel shows how this approach applies to the present situation.

Learning from history

"The underlying idea within the cluster is that it’s always connectivities which significantly shape the development of human societies: connections and interactions between humans and the environment, groups and other groups, and in the broader sense also between various domains of action, such as ways of life, social orders, knowledge cultures, economic strategies, diets or disease patterns. This could also serve as the starting point here," summarised Lutz Käppel.

The articles do not provide a panacea for dealing with the current pandemic. "However, they make an indispensable contribution to dealing with such a threat in a historically enlightened manner, in which the historical experience together with modern medical knowledge must be part of an overall strategy to overcome it," concluded Johannes Müller.

Original publication:

Distant Times so Close: Pandemics and Crises reloaded. With contributions by V.P.J. Arponen, Martin Furholt, Lutz Käppel, Tim Kerig, Ben Krause-Kyora, Cheryl Makarewicz, Johannes Müller, Almut Nebel, Henny Piezonka and Chiara Thumiger, ROOTS Booklet Series No. 1, published by Lutz Käppel, Cheryl Makarewicz and Johannes Müller, 64 pages, numerous images, Sidestone Press, Leiden 2020.

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Animals and a person in the nature.
© Jens Schneeweiß, Young Academy, Kiel University

In the Siberian taiga, lifeways and subsistence are based on close-knit human-animal ties.

Person in a protective suit
© Ben Krause-Kyora, Kiel University

The search for pathogens. Working in the clean room in order to avoid contaminations with modern DNA.

Drawing of a settlement, view from above.
© Susanne Beyer, Institute of Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University

From 4100 BCE, members of the so-called Tripolye communities lived in large settlements with more than 10,000 inhabitants. In Maidanetske, an early urban settlement in today’s Central Ukraine, humans and animals lived together in confined spaces. Some scientists believe that the Black Plague developed here.


Dr. Andrea Ricci
Scientific Coordinator Cluster of Excellence ROOTS
+49 431/880-5871


Angelika Hoffmann
Research focus officer SECC/JMA