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Class Notes: Human Osteology

Friday: January 6, 2012

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Week 12: More Paleopathology


We checked out a bunch of examples from the Fun Box of Paleopatholgy. This included osteomyelitis, misaligned healed fractures, periosteal reactions, osteophytosis, eburnation, enthesopathy, spondylolisis, osteoarthritis, myositis ossificans, cut marks, ankylosis, and ankylosing spondylosis. Yep, it was one of those days that I wondered why I signed up for a field with such huge words to take notes on.


We had a simple lab day to work on our skeletal projects. I don’t recall where I last left off with my posting on this. Originally, I was assigned an infant skelly. Once I finished the baby, I moved on to some commingled remains from our BARFAA project.


Friday was a special class because Dr. Wilson from IUPUI came to give us a Transition Analysis lecture/lab. It was the same as the one I sat in during BARFAA but with my class being smaller and more intimate, I felt like I learned more – of course, that may simply be because this was the second time hearing it. Basically, this new method is advocated to be more reliable, replicable, and quantifiable than past methods of scoring data. If I felt qualified enough to delve into detail, I would. Instead, I will cover just the very basic concepts used.

The traditional methods of scoring the auricular surface and pubic symphysis are sometimes called Suchey-Brooks or the Lovejoy methods. Cranial sutures are also scored for aging. Research has shown, however, that these methods tend to provide results which mimic the original reference sample – making the life tables for all kinds of populations look oddly familiar. These methods utilized phases of bone formation and degeneration. Transition analysis introduces using stages instead. Rather than trying to lump all the evidence given by the feature being studied, it measures each variable independently and provides probability statistics based accordingly, unlike the pigeon-hole phenomenon with a phase-based system. The stage system allows for more variability in the measurements because more possible combinations can be recorded (instead of scoring a single general phase for the development of the apex, ventral rampart, surface porosity and whatnot, it allows individual scores for each of these).

Functionally, transition analysis software lets you input each of these individuals independently, then scores the total age range for the given parts in a bell curve for each feature. The program calculated the P value and gives you the most likely age at death. Its best advantage is omitting that 50+ category. The old idea that people in the past didn’t live as long as we do today is not nearly as accurate as the stories tell. It is simply that most of the methods available for calculating age are unable to distinguish ages among older people. Transition analysis, however, can give you much more precise ages, and the P value still allows a check on accuracy. If you ever get a chance to attend a program on transition analysis, I urge you to check it out.

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School Bits

Friday: October 14, 2011

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Although I have several segments of class notes to type up, I thought I would make a short post about other things happening in grad school.

Over the weekend, my cohort and I presented our findings at BARFAA (see the abstract located here). UIndy was given the responsibility of profiling (at least) three individuals accidentally discovered in Tippecanoe County. Originally, I was to present my own research on teeth from Isreal using the WLCP, but instead we all felt it would benefit the project if I changed course and added dental texture analysis to the accidental discovery. We put together a keynote presentation and though quite nervous, I felt we did well. I was surprised to find that I was able to master my voice and talk slowly during my segment. We had some questions afterward, and I was able to meet several people in the field. Boy came with me so we could make it a mini-vacation, and the next day we attended the workshop for Transition Analysis, by Dr. Wilson of IUPUI. It is a software developed for use by anthropologists. My take is that it is similar to Fordisc, only targeting age rather than ancestry. It allows you to input several measurements and use a range of measurements. Then it will calculate the confidence level and show you a graph which outlines the individual methods and the correlated age from them. I look forward to using the program in my studies.

Since I made a plug for it, I shall make a plug for another anthropologically awesome program. Anthropomotron is designed for estimates of sex, stature, body mass, skeletal population estimates, and various skeletal indices. I am also interested to see how this works out for me.

Aside from BARFAA, I have been working on my Human Osteology skeletal project. I requested a juvenile since I had worked with mostly adults in Peru, and received a tiny baby. It is sad to think he or she passed away so early and the heartache that must have caused the family. Perhaps that thought is ethnocentric, I do not know, but I feel honored to take the little one in my care. From my research this far, I am almost certain the baby did not reach full term. The teeny tininess has proven a learning experience for me – not just because the bones are not at their mature form, but also because they are literally so small, it is simply hard to examine them. I have also learned first hand about the difficulties archaeologists face when excavating children (this site is a CRM recovery, of course). The archaeologists did very well bagging different bones and labeling the bags, but they did not always correctly identify something. A turtle shell was mistaken for a cranial fragment, and some fragments of ribs were misplaced in the fibula and vert bags. The pubes were both placed in the vert bag as well. This avenue is something I would like to explore more – archaeologists do not always get proper osteological training, and even then sometimes children are not discussed in depth. This is for several reasons of course (and will be explained in a later post), but the need is there. Considering the importance of reburial, the most respectful thing would be to collect the whole individual, you know? Tooth buds, epiphyses, and all.

Another cool thing that happened (and then didn’t) is that the DNR called to see if we could excavate a skeleton discovered in someone’s backyard. To have the excavation experience ourselves would have been wonderful but unfortunately it coincided with BARFAA so we could not get there as early as the police requested and they were able to hire someone else. Maybe next time.

Undergrads (friends and strangers alike!) may surprise you with free food since their tuition includes a meal plan that they do not always use. I’ve had this happen twice and it is quite awesome. The anthro undergrads are pretty cool, especially. For instance, today we discussed the anthropology behind zombies. Does it get any more real than that?

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