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Class Notes: Bioarchaeology

Saturday: September 24, 2011

Week 2: Age, Sex, & Ancestry


Bioarchaeologists begin with determining the biological profile, which would include age, sex, ancestry, and any idiosyncrasies relevant to the individual. It is not clear cut, so the aim is accuracy over precision. For instance, does everyone age in the same way? No. Age has both intrinsic and extrinsic factors: individual development which is then affected by lifestyle stresses. Is a person’s sex truly reflected in their skeleton? Can molecular testing positively identify ancient DNA? Not always. Although sex is genetically determined, the environment can affect the indicators – more physical stresses can lead to more robustness, skewing the indicators of females, for instance. Genetic sex itself is not always concrete either, with developmental issues and hormonal problems, in addition to poor rates of preservation. Is ancestry a discreet classification? No. Ancestry actually is easier than perhaps aging and sexing in older populations because they were small and isolated, but it is still not exacting. This is especially due to limited preservation of certain traits needed to be confident in identifying an ancestral relation. Idiosyncrasies can be more specific since they are blatantly observable in most cases, but even these sometimes are considered “non-specific” because the cause is unknown. When the individuals are then brought together to understand a population, paleodemography can be discussed.


Demographic factors can be affected by age and stress. Stress (trauma, disease, nutrition, lifestyle, etc.) can interrupt the normal growth trajectory of an individual. This is why stature is often used to determine the health of a population. Harris lines can occur in long bones, which may represent periods of stress on the skeleton as well, though these will heal over the course of a lifetime. The development of teeth in children can also be interrupted, which forms linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH) – horizontal lines typically found in the front teeth, but even something like a fever can cause them so they are not explicitly used to determine overall health. Sometimes the development rate of teeth and the epiphyseal fusing of long bones no longer match as they should, and this may represent a period of stress as well.

Overall, bioarchaeologists have been able to determine that with the adoption of an agricultural lifestyle, health in populations did decline. In part, this is because the hunting-foraging diet is much more widely varied and therefore highly nutritional compared to a concentration on a few staples, particular maize in North America. Perhaps a much more crucial cause of this trend is that an agricultural population is a sedentary one, which will have a denser concentration of people. This creates sanitation issues and the ability for diseases to spread rapidly, either from domesticated animals to humans, or simply humans to other humans.

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