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Class Notes: Bioarchaeology

Saturday: September 10, 2011

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Week 1: What is bioarchaeology?

The course objectives are to inform students of:

  • History of bioarchaeology
  • Theoretical rubrics that surround bioarchaeological analysis
  • New directions of bioarchaeological study
  • Ethics of studying the ancient dead

We are assigned two texts for the course: Bioarchaeology and Ancient Health. Grad students have an additional book: Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton. (See the Library page for bibliographic information.)

This class is cross-listed with undergrads (eleven of them, three of us grads). The main difference is the extra text and the discussions that we will lead from it, in a form similar to seminars.


We discussed what bioarchaeology is, and the method involved of mixing biological theory with social theory. Very briefly, bioarchaeology examines past human remains (mostly hard tissues of bone and teeth although the occasional mummy comes to light) to understand behavior, subsistence practices, and sociopolitical organization of a population.

We then went over the history of the field. During the 1800s, C. B. Moore was considered an “archaeologist” and gave a lot of artifacts to museums (how he obtained them may be a bit dubious). Only recently, in the early 1900s did skeletal remains begin to be seen as an important source of information. A. Hrdlicka, perhaps the first “bioarchaeologist”, founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, still active today. After having studied different native groups (also quite dubiously), he realized that there were certain physical traits present (such as shoveled incisors, also common to those with Asian descent). Following him, people began to use analytical methods to understand how skeletons age throughout life. Only in the 70’s did the term bioarchaeology get coined and still yet not until 1990 was the Native American Graves Protection Act passed that really set the stage for respectful and professional studies of past populations (of course, I suspect some “professionals” are yet still dubious themselves, unfortunately).

I completely respect the viewpoint that the dead should remain buried. Unfortunately, as America changes and construction goes on, old grave sites get dug up or discovered all the time. In place is Cultural Resource Management, which is a sector that I may pursue after my degree. CRM bioarchaeologists are hired on rescue missions when a new street or new office basement uncovers human remains. If possible, the population is identified so that they can be repatriated to the closest native group for proper ceremony and reburial. Don’t get me wrong though – immigrant (“American”) burials are in just as much peril, if not more, than native groups. Side note: some people find skeletons and all that to be creepy but I would like to point out that if I could just examine my own skeleton I would be more excited than if I won the lotto. True story.


We discussed how the turn from foraging hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary agricultural societies is one of the worse decisions ever as far as health is concerned. Close living with higher populations leads to unsanitary conditions and rapid spread of disease. Nutritionally, agri diets are far less varied in nutrients and are often focus on one type (ie. maize) which can lead to health problems itself (cavities). Think about your own diet – how many different types of food do you truly eat on a regular bases? (And think about what the potential is across the globe!)

The context in which a skelly is found is critical. For instance, cultural phenomena can be seen in burials. The burial itself is evidence that the society had a specific way of laying their beloveds to rest. Social stratification can be seen – elite class people may be buried closer to a monument, whereas the common class may be at the outskirts. To further this thought, do the elites show better health in their skeletons than the commoners? What type of grave goods do each get? Are men treated differently in burials than women? Than children? These are only a few questions that can be answered and interpreted from a burial.

But much like anything else, bioarchaeology does have some limitations. For starters, those discovered are only a subsample of the whole population. Maybe not everyone was buried in the particular area. Maybe not everyone was found or even preserved to be found. Obviously, bones will not show everything and sometimes cannot be fully recognized for classifications. The processes which occur after a burial (called taphonomic processes) can disrupt the bones as well as the burial.

As the program goes on, I will try to explain some of these ideas in further detail.

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