Archaeological Synthesis, Infectious Disease, and NSF

NSF logoThe Impact of Infectious Disease on Human Societies

Globally, the coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching and continuing effects on mortality, health, and well-being. Economies, social interactions, and food security and many other aspects of society have also been deeply affected. Moreover, negative consequences of the pandemic have disproportionately affected disadvantaged and oppressed social groups.

Two thirds of all infectious diseases in humans today derive from pathogens, like coronavirus, that jumped from animals to humans. The emergence of zoonotic disease is stimulated by environmental change, decreases in biodiversity, and the intensification and expansion of human settlement and food production. Global health organizations warn that climate change and ongoing disturbance from human activity will only increase the risk of future pandemics.

Infectious disease outbreaks have occurred repeatedly throughout the human past and with devastating effects. The impact of novel European pathogens on Native American populations, for example, may have caused widespread demographic collapse that led to major socio-political transformations and drastic disruption of indigenous subsistence practices, cultural traditions, and social reproduction. Archaeologists and geneticists are also acquiring a new ability to study the long-term co-evolution of people and pathogens.

Yet, how human social organization, ecology, interaction, land use, technology, and economy affect the emergence, transmission, persistence, and consequences of infectious disease remains poorly understood. These are problems important not only to understanding the past, but in protecting current and future populations from the devastating and far-reaching impacts of infectious disease.

National Science Foundation Program Solicitation on the Evolution and Ecology of Infectious Diseases

Now, there is a potential funding vehicle for addressing these concerns. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently released Program Solicitation (NSF 23-616), on the Evolution and Ecology of Infectious Diseases. The Solicitation places heavy emphasis on investigating the social, ecological, and evolutionary dynamics of infectious disease from a systems perspective.

The NSF’s Program Solicitation on the Evolution and Ecology of Infectious Diseases identifies a series of research topics that suggest a strong need for archaeological synthesis. These include:

  • the role of social influences on the susceptibility of individuals or populations;
  • the role of medical, agricultural or environmental practices on pathogen emergence and transmission;
  • the role of animal movement and social structure in shaping transmission dynamics;
  • evolutionary dynamics in an ecological context such as disease control interventions and drug resistance.

How Could Archaeology Contribute to the Program?

Archaeology’s deep-time perspective, contextual diversity, and global reach could be uniquely important to tackling the challenging problems identified in NSF’s Program Solicitation.  Indeed, CfAS New Initiative Committee previously identified Infectious Disease as an important theme for synthetic research, so it is heartening to see that NSF agrees on the important role that social and ecological factors play and on the need for more integrated study. The CfAS New Initiatives Committee offered the following example research questions for guiding synthetic research into infectious disease:

  • What social, ecological, and immunological factors make human populations more or less susceptible to pathogenic disease?
  • What are the long- term consequences of disease burdens for political economy, social and economic stability, food security, and demography?
  • What role do human social arrangements and relationships with other species play in the evolution of pathogens?
  • Infectious diseases spread through interpersonal contacts, which are more frequent in larger and denser social settings.
  • What strategies have societies followed to reduce disease burdens while taking advantage of sociality?

There are many more synthetic research topics and questions concerning infectious disease that will likely align with NSF’s Program Solicitation. This is an opportunity where collaborative synthesis could help current and future societies cope with the growing and devastating impacts that infectious disease can (and will) have on human health and well-being, demography, and social reproduction.

Act Now and Make a Difference

To make use of this opportunity you need to act fast! This year’s round of full proposals is due November 15, 2023.

Go here to find out how to apply for funding.


Crosby, Alfred W. 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

Di Marco, Moreno, et al. 2020. Sustainable Development Must Account for Pandemic Risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences 117(8):3888–3892.

Jones, Bryony A., et al. 2013. Zoonosis Emergence Linked to Agricultural Intensification and Environmental Change. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences 110(21):8399–8404.

Larsen, Clark Spencer. 2018. The Bioarchaeology of Health Crisis: Infectious Disease in the Past. Annual Review of Anthropology 47:295-313.

Mühlemann, Barbara, et al. 2020. Diverse variola virus (smallpox) strains were widespread in northern Europe in the Viking Age. Science 369(6502):eaaw8977.

Reff, Daniel T. 1991. Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518–1764. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

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