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Class Notes: Human Osteology

Sunday: January 8, 2012

Week 14: Case Studies


Fall break was not scheduled into the syllabus so we got an extra week to really go over some bioarchaeological issues. On Tuesday, we learned a new inventorying program that was installed in the lab, called Osteoware. Its purpose is to standardize inventorying so that skeletal databases can work in kind. I do not have much experience with it yet, but I see its potentional. I will be interested to see updates come out though because some segments are a little clunky right now. However, considering they offered it for free and I understand through my husband what it takes to program, I have faith that it really can become *the* database of choice. I am always terrible excited when his field mixes with mine for some reason.

We also covered taphonomy. Taphonomy references the changes which occur after death, including all factors from the biological breakdown to the cultural mortuary practices to the geological processes which affect individuals after death. The importance of understanding taphonomy is so that a researcher can distinguish between natural environmental processes and cultural treatments. Taphonomy is also useful in distinguishing either of these from pathology that the individual may have suffered.

Biological agents include animals (namely rodents and carnivores, but any animal can take part in trampling) and plants. Animal evidence is seen through crushing to access marrow, canine punctures, scalloped gnawing, and breaks by trampling. Plants are attracted to mineral rich soil, and decaying organisms provide this environment. Their evidence is seen through root etching and staining, breaking or obliterating bones, and algae, lichen, moss or fungi growth directly on the bones.

Cultural practices can include the preservation of burial or the thermal alteration of cremation, but also other factors. Burial in coffins can lead to coffin staining and coffin wear. Some cultures cleaned flesh from the skeleton prior to internment and this can be noted with cut marks. Further evidence of cut marks, pot polish, and crushing for marrow can be interpreted as cannibalism. Modern machines can disturb grave sites intensely. There are many other ways that people themselves can partake in the processes of taphonomy, these are but a few.

Non-biological agents are varied. Water can leach bone of minerals, weather the cortex, stain bone dark brown, and transport it. The sun can bleach bone to extremes, cracking and splitting it in diagnostic ways. The pH level of soil can either aid or hinder preservation (bone is best preserved in alkaline soil, while soft tissue is best preserved in acidic bogs). Wind can cause transport, aid in drying bone, or wear with sand grains. Gravity is a great transporter as well.


Taphonomy itself has high inter-observer error – maybe not necessarily in observation rates, but in descriptive remarks. It is also difficult at times to declare whether or not something affected the bone just prior to or just after death. Think of scalping, for instance. It is known that people survived being scalped (healed wounds as evidence), so scalping would occur prior to death, but in some instances scalps were taken after death. Only the latter is considered taphonomic, however.

Another point is that all things aside, two individuals will not preserve the same. Children and the elderly often are the first to return to Mother Earth because their bones are smaller and frailer. Therefore, in a population where much of the individuals are middle adult age, it is important to understand whether this is true due to taphonomic processes, is the population did not reach elderly age and the children were buried elsewhere, or if children and elderly both were buried elsewhere.


We held a lab on paleopathology and taphonomy. Dr. S set up many stations so we could practice identification and distinguishing between the two.

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One remark!

  1. Those big words get me. But, I am getting where I can almost understand a little what you are talking about.

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