Gluten-Free Rome: Celiac disease in the bioarchaeological record

Celiac Disease in the Bioarchaeological Record


  • Rachel Simpson MacEwan University



Bioarchaeology, Celiac Disease, Ancient DNA, Stable Isotope Analysis


Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by consumption of the gluten protein, is theorized to have originated alongside the domestication of wheat during the European Agricultural Revolution, ca. 8 000 BCE (Freeman 2013). Human conditions that primarily affect soft tissue, like celiac disease, do not leave tangible evidence on the skeleton and therefore it is difficult to prove their presence. However, recent analyses have employed a suite of macroscopic, molecular, and chemical techniques to establish that a Roman Imperial (100–300 CE) individual from Cosa, Italy, likely suffered from celiac disease. This paper analyzes the works of these researchers and argues that this case study exemplifies modern bioarchaeology, which frequently requires an arsenal of methods beyond visual observation. Using similar syntheses of techniques bioarchaeologists can possibly identify celiac disease in individuals predating 100 CE, recreating the origins of celiac disease as well as tackling other previously ‘impossible’ research questions in this field.