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Class Notes: Bioarchaeology

Tuesday: November 1, 2011

Week 6: Kids


Week 6 was suppose to cover kids, but trauma is so much fun. We had more class discussions from the text but also learned about case studies that Dr. S has been a part of. A particular one of interest to me has been published so I am free to discuss it. I even purchased the book, Human Variation in the Americas (see full bibliography information at the Library page). Near my home town in Floyd County, a male individual was discovered with a cache of forelimbs possibly representing five different people. To give you some idea of the range of questions a bioarchaeologist may ask, here are a few we tossed around in class: Were these war trophies? Magic vessels for a shaman? Familial keepsakes? We may never know, but we must always keep our minds open.


Case studies discussing the adoption of agriculture were presented followed by a quick chat about why bioarchaeology cannot have one single answer to all there is to discover in history. This is because there are way too many variable factors to consider. Each case must be examined with a full understanding of the site’s context, geographically, temporally, and culturally. And of course always in the back of a bioarchaeologists mind is the Osteological Paradox.

Our discussion then turned towards children and how they are often overlooked in archaeology. Problems begin with differential burial: some populations would bury their children in separate cemeteries, along paths, in house floors, or at other unique places so they rest undiscovered compared to the extent of adults in cemeteries which modern construction breaks in to. Another main problem is that of preservation: children’s bones are tinier and more fragile than adult bones so are far less likely to be preserved. The archaeologists excavating children remains also may not be trained to identify the tiny bones and fragments (an adult has 206 bones on average, while at birth a child has over 300). In addition, children are shadowed in bioarchaeology because so much of the research is dependent on comparisons, including that of male versus female. In children, these differences are almost (if not totally) non-exisitent in skeletal remains, which means that most research is biased towards adults. Another dilemma is that in published research, there is no standardization of identifying “children”. Terms such as fetal, neonate, newborn, infant, child, kid, juvenile, adolescent, and subadult mean very little because an age range was not provided, or the range varies between researchers so that comparisons cannot be drawn.

Kids also invoke, once again, the Osteological Paradox. Do more children in a cemetery mean the population is unhealthy? Are more children dying because of the diseases being spread? Or perhaps the population is quite healthy: are more children simply being born? If the percentage of living babies to those buried were known, these questions could be answered.

Also of note is how once grave goods entered our past, children seem to be over-adorned in many places all over the world. Did the children discovered have a socioeconomic status by birth? Were children more important to the population than adults? Were adults providing children goods in consideration of their short lives? Was the community sharing support in a family’s loss?

We then had class discussion over the texts and I presented three chapters.

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