Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Anthropology (MA)

Degree Level





Jerome C. Rose

Committee Member

George Sabo

Second Committee Member

Ann M. Early


Anthropology, Archaeology, Bioarchaeology, De Soto, Disease, Malaria


It is well known through documentation in historical accounts that numerous diseases were introduced to the Americas during the time of Spanish and French exploration. Diseases such as smallpox, measles and yellow fever have been credited in playing a role in the Spanish conquest of the New World through drastic Native American population decline. Many researchers have studied the biological consequences of European contact, some using direct skeletal analyses to study changes in Native American health and disease. However, one major population disease that has not been part of these discussions is malaria. This is mostly due to the current paradigm in epidemiological history that malaria was first introduced by African slaves during the colonial period slave trades. In addition, the skeletal markers of this disease have not been known until recently. However, recent advances in bioarchaeology have developed a method to identify and diagnose malaria in skeletal remains. This study investigates the possible introduction of malaria to the Central Mississippi Valley (CMV) and Trans-Mississippi South (TMS) regions by the Hernando de Soto expedition. Numerous factors hint at the possibility that the members of the expedition were the first to introduce malaria to the region during their explorations in AD 1541-1542. These factors include endemic malaria in Spain during the age of exploration, the inclusion of numerous African slaves in the crew, the ability of the Plasmodium parasite to lay dormant within a hosts’ liver for an extended period of time, and various ecological characteristics of the protohistoric CMV/TMS environment. To investigate this possibility, the newly developed bioarchaeological method for identifying malaria in the skeletal record was employed on Native American skeletal data from 113 CMV/TMS sites spanning temporally from 8,000 BC to AD 1920. Results of this study confirm the presence and increase of malaria indicators in the region during the protohistoric period, which strongly suggests that members of the de Soto expedition could have been the first to introduce malaria to the region. These results will enhance our understanding of the spread of malaria to the New World, and contribute to studies on European contact with indigenous populations.