Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bioarchaeology: A Body of Knowledge

Elizabeth Mills, a graduate student in bioarchaeology at the
University of Central Florida, measuring a cranium. 
Archaeologists learn about people and cultures from the past by studying the “stuff” they leave behind and the remnants of the places they used to live. Often, archaeologists are able to analyze artifacts and ecofacts (natural objects that are meaningful to the site: such as animal bone, plants, charcoal from a fire…etc.) to learn about a prehistoric diet or lifestyle. There are some limits, however, to what we can learn about ancient populations through looking at these things. Archaeologists who are concerned with learning about the health of a population, or the life history of an individual, can turn to the population itself to gain some answers to these questions and many more.

A skeleton with selected bones labeled. From:

Archaeologists who specialize in the study of human remains from archaeological sites are called bioarchaeologists. The human body is an excellent record-keeper. Even after thousands of years body tissues such as bone, hair, nails, and even preserved skin can yield invaluable information about a person’s life history, such as:
  • What kinds of food did they eat? Did they get adequate nutrition?
  •  Were they healthy as an adult? As a child?
  •    Did this person migrate during their lifetime?
  •  Did this person suffer from any major injuries during their life?
  •  What kind of work did this person do?
  They can also ask questions about the culture the person was a part of:
  • Did men and women perform similar jobs?
  • Did the culture have advanced medical technology? Could they mend bones, perform surgery?
  • Did the culture have any unique ideas about beauty that are reflected in the skeleton or on the body? 

Believe it or not, if a bio-archaeologist was to study your bones, they could answer a lot of these questions about you! But how? Here’s the shorthand version:
A skeleton being excavated by bioarchaeologists. Image from:
Bone can be preserved for thousands of years. Bioarchaeologists have many techniques to study bone to answer specific questions, including: gross analysis, microscopic analysis and chemical analysis. 
When they simply hold a bone and inspect it by looking at it (with no microscope) to evaluate its shape and condition, it is called “gross analysis” (don’t worry, it’s not really gross). There are many things a bio-archaeologist can see on bone through gross analysis. For starters, it is possible to establish whether the person was a male or female, whether they were an adult or a child, and what the person's ancestry may have been. The bioarchaeologist can also discover evidence of disease, nutritional deficiency, injury, and even purposeful changes to bone for purposes of beauty through this type of analysis!

Bio-archaeologists who specialize in Florida archaeology have done a lot of research to determine the impact that European colonization and missions had on the health and lifestyle of the Native American populations who once lived here. The book “Bioarchaeology of Spanish Florida” edited by Clark Spencer Larsen is a great source of information if you are interested in learning about the effects that colonization had on the Native People of Florida from a bioarchaeological perspective. I highly recommend checking it out (literally!)

Image from:
Bioarchaeology is a fascinating area of study within the realm of archaeology. Today, we touched on some of the things that bioarchaeologists can study through looking at bone, but there are many questions that can be answered through looking at other body tissues, such as preserved skin, hair, and nails! Bone is much more likely to be found archaeologically, but in some instances these other tissues are can provide just as much information.

That's all for this time, but next time tune in to learn a little about bioarchaeological excavations.

Works Referenced:
"Artifacts and Features." Learning Center of the American Southwest. 18 September 2013. Web. 31 March 2016.

Larsen CS. 2001. Bioarchaeology of Spanish Florida: The Impact of Colonialism. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Hutchinson DL, Larsen CS. 2001. Enamel Hypoplasia and Stress in La Florida. In: Larsen CS, ed. Bioarchaeology of Spanish Florida: The Impact of Colonialism. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Schultz M, Larsen CS, Kreutz K. 2001. Disease in Spanish Florida. In: Larsen CS, ed. Bioarchaeology of Spanish Florida: The Impact of Colonialism. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

3 Responses so far.

  1. well done introduction! Thanks for putting this out there...

  2. Thank you, we're glad that you enjoyed it!

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