What can ancient bones tell us about today's diseases?

Associate Professor Kate Domett moved from New Zealand to Australia 14 years ago to undertake research focusing on paleopathology – the study of diseases in the past. Associate Professor Domett regularly travels to South East Asia to work with archaeologists on excavations and to examine all the human skeletal remains on their sites. The intention is to determine how people lived, what diseases they may have suffered from, and how they coped and adapted in certain conditions in prehistoric eras.

JCU: Tell us a bit about Kate Domett.

KD: I’m originally from a small, rural town in New Zealand’s North Island. I went to school locally before heading to boarding school, where I particularly enjoyed studying science. I then attended the University of Otago in Dunedin, so I like to consider myself a South Islander now.

When I started at the University of Otago I was thinking about doing a health science course like physiotherapy or medicine. The first subjects I had to study were biology, which then led to anatomy. I loved anatomy and this motivated me to do well in it.

I now specialise in teaching human anatomy and researching paleopathology at JCU. Paleopathology is the study of diseases in the past. We learn about how people lived and how they coped with past conditions so we can learn where we have come from and apply that to future events (for example, climate change). We can then use our knowledge of the diseases and pathologies present to see how they link and track with cultural change, and how that affects people. I also use this knowledge to help in forensic cases to assist in identification of skeletal remains. I have been called on by the police, the coroner and local archaeologists to identify bones that have been recently uncovered during building construction or beach erosion, for example – more often than not they are animal bones but we need to be sure so that the correct procedures can then take place.

My teaching role also includes acting as the First Year Coordinator for JCU’s medicine students. It’s a reasonably big role, overseeing eight first year subjects as well as making sure the students get a good start to their university life.

JCU: How did you begin your career in research?

KD: I didn’t know my career even existed until I got to my third year of university and realised there was a whole lot more out there than traditional health jobs. When I was studying, I took on a series of human anatomy subjects from histology to the musculoskeletal system. Osteology (the study of bones and what they can tell you) was the one I connected to the most.

After my first year of postgraduate study in osteology I worked on an archaeological site in Thailand and then proceeded to complete my PhD in biological anthropology. This research focussed on nearly 500 human skeletons from four archaeological sites across Thailand. The skeletons ranged from the Neolithic up to the Iron Age (between around 4,500-1,500 years ago). My aim was to build up a picture of these skeletons as individuals within four communities alongside the culture they developed, their physical environment, and what was happening to them at the time. That experience sparked my love of research.

JCU: What can we learn today from diseases in the past?

KD: Studying diseases in past societies improves our understanding of disease evolution - the development and progression of diseases through time, particularly in light of key events in our history such as the transition to agriculture, periods of climate change, industrialisation and so forth. We can also look to see how diseases progressed without any medical intervention.

I have uncovered a person from the Iron Age in Cambodia who possibly suffered from cancer – we got to see the full effect of this on the human skeleton. We also get to see very early stages of disease, which modern medicine wouldn’t see because medical imaging won’t pick it up. For example, we get to see how bones change with osteoarthritis right from the initial stage, which can help with understanding how the disease develops. We can also look at the epidemiology of disease in the past – is osteoarthritis in the knee joints a modern disease, influenced to some degree by the obesity epidemic or is it long standing with multiple causes?

JCU: What brought you to Australia?

KD: A job! I finished my PhD in 2000, and took a year off to recover. I always recommend students taking a year off at some point in their career, because once you get a job it is much more difficult to do that and a break is a good opportunity to take stock of where you want to be headed.

I spent the year travelling to participate in various projects in south east Asia and attend a few conferences – I had a fabulous trip to Italy for a paleopathology meeting and went to Myanmar for the first time to excavate. I also got to do a very interesting short course on paleopathology in the UK. After doing a series of really enjoyable things overseas, I decided I’d better get a job.

Luckily, the skills learnt in my undergraduate degree opened up the opportunity to tutor and eventually lecture students in anatomy while doing my postgraduate degree. This experience gave me the skills to teach all sorts of topics in anatomy. I applied for a position at JCU when the medical school here was only a couple of years old – I did have to look up Townsville on a map when I got an interview but I haven’t been disappointed. My husband is a marine biologist, so he came over about six months after me and has also worked at JCU ever since. We love living in Townsville and raising our family here without the hassles of a big city.

JCU: What are you working on at the moment?

KD: We’re working on lots of things at the moment. We’ve got a new project in Laos starting this year, funded by the Australian Research Council, which is very exciting. It’s all about learning more about the Plain of Jars. There’s a number of areas in Laos which have these massive stone jars from the Iron Age, which can be up to two metres high. Some of these jars have been found with cremated human remains inside them. There have been very few excavations which also found burial remains around the jars, so our project is to find out why they’re there. We are working with local Lao archaeologists and archaeology colleagues from ANU and Monash. We hope this new scientific information will help the Lao government in their bid to place the Plain of Jars on the UNESCO World Heritage List in the near future. This in turn would help improve tourism to the region and go some way to alleviate poverty in Laos.

I’m also working on two skeletal collections – one from Vietnam, and one from north-east Thailand. I have colleagues from the University of Otago and Australian National University who all have their own areas of interest in skeletal health, so I’m looking at osteoarthritis in the skeletons and getting students involved in that. It’s a nice team approach.

JCU: Where else has your work taken you?

KD: One of the best parts of my job is all the travel I get to do. I’ve been all over south-east Asia – Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, to name a few. There have been so many opportunities over there for me.

My favourite place to work is Hanoi. It’s a beautiful old city with amazing food. I’ve also been going to the same small town in Thailand for over 20 years. It’s a place called Phimai, in the north-east, and was the location of my first excavation and my most recent. It’s pretty amazing to see the same place change and get to know the people over time.

Working in Myanmar was a pretty amazing experience as well. I had just finished my PhD when I accompanied my supervisor to work on some Bronze Age skeletons there. The way the local people looked after us was phenomenal – it was like we were royalty. The family with whom we were staying would cook dinner for us every night but it was tradition there that guests ate alone while the family waited on us, and half the village stood outside looking through the window as we ate - out came my best table manners!

JCU: Has there been a standout moment in your career?

KD: My first excavation was pretty amazing. My postgraduate supervisor asked me to help on an archaeological excavation in Thailand in my fourth year. It was just an amazing experience. I had previously just done research on skeletons curated at the university in New Zealand, but to be the first person to find these remains, excavate them, and follow them all the way through my research was a pretty neat experience. Combine that with overseas travel where we were immersed in the local culture for weeks at a time really had me hooked.

JCU: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

KD: The fact that I love what I do – that’s the basic thing it all comes down to. If you can find a job that you’re passionate about, it makes that job so much easier to do (even the boring bits). That’s one of the things I feel most fortunate about. I’ve found a job that I simply love.

I’m motivated by ensuring my students are engaged and achieving. When we tell the students that we value their feedback, we really do! We get some really good ideas from them, and hearing them tell you that your lessons are great is so nice.

Certainly, part of my aim is to inspire a new generation of paleopathologists, but it’s a small field in Australia. One of the most rewarding things about my job is starting with supervising a postgraduate student who knows only a little bit about the discipline, and then seeing them develop and get through their research. My PhD students start out working with me in the field, and in the following years I can give them more responsibility, and eventually they run their own projects.

JCU: What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab or on the field?

KD: I play tennis and enjoy reading fiction when I get the time (it’s a nice distraction from all the non-fiction I read at work). I hang out with my kids and drive them to sports and dancing. We really enjoy being in North Queensland, so we do a bit of camping and really love going to Magnetic Island.

JCU: What’s next for Kate?

KD: I’ve just been promoted, which was a big goal for me. I’m now thinking about what I can do to become a professor, which is a much longer-term goal. We’ve got our Laos project starting this year, so who knows what that will bring up in the next few years!

With my teaching, I’m always looking at ways to improve. Trying to keep up and implement the innovations developing in the education of anatomy is a goal of mine.

JCU has been so supportive, and we’ve been here for 14 years now. We’re hoping to become Australian Citizens this year. However, even after all this time I still get harassed about my New Zealand accent. Rugby season is still difficult too, but I leave that to my husband to defend.

Cover image: Kate Domett

Featured JCU researcher

A/Prof Kate Domett
A/Prof Kate Domett
I am one of only a handful of biological anthropologists in Australia. Trained in biological and forensic anthropology as well as human anatomy, I received my PhD from the University of Otago in 2000. I have undertaken research in to prehistoric,