The Study of Human Remains: What does it really tell us? Part 2

The sex of an individual is especially important in determining a pattern within a society. A pattern of anything; death rate for males versus females, infanticide of males or females, common societal pathologies for each sex and so on.

Independently, the sex of an individual tells us little more than its gender, although, knowing the sex is a prerequisite for many other forms of skeletal examination (Boylston et al 2000, 47). It, along with estimated age, must be recorded as a part of a whole to have any statistically relevant meaning within the society.

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Evidence gathered from early hunter-gatherer groups of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic, shows that they were prone to specific types of diseases and certain types of death.   Females of the group had a certainly higher death risk presumably due to complications during childbirth.  Archaeological evidence has undoubtedly provided evidence of such possible situations. The remains of males of an untimely demise generally illustrate injuries from trips, falls and animal attacks while hunting.  The discovery of infant remains tells us about societal practices and the treatment of sick or weak infants that may slow down the group or cause unnecessary problems for the parents. Members of hunter-gatherer groups of this time period generally only lived into their 30s (Waldron 2001, 57).  Individual finds about these prehistoric people would be better suited in a pool of information about prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups, rather than a biology and lifestyle of a single individual.  The pooled information helps to narrow down the gaps in the knowledge bank of human history and evolution.

Sex & Dental:

Many dental and skeletal studies have been carried out in an attempt to distinguish between the statuses of people.  In a study by Scott and Turner (1988) and Molnar (1971) on prehistoric North American populations, it was determined that the non-agricultural societies had far less wearing on their teeth than the agricultural societies did.  This was likely due to the softer foods consumed by the former.  The latter group subsisted on more gritty, carbohydrate rich foods that wore the enamel down at a quicker rate and increased the likelihood of dental caries.  A modern example of this phenomenon is the study by Walker and Hewlett (1990), of the foragers from central Africa.  The Mbuti pygmy tribe, in the Ituri rainforest of the Congo, is a hunter/gather society.  While the women gather and prepare plant food, the men perform net-hunts.  During the hunts, the men would snack on meat and the women would equally nibble on fibrous plant foods during gathering and meal preparation.  The dental wear difference between the sexes was evident.  The women’s teeth were much more worn down than the men’s due to the harshness of the food they were consuming on a regular basis, adding to the understanding of the effects of different food types on the tooth enamel which occur between the sexes of the same group.  The egalitarian Mbuti social system would suggest little dietary differences between the people and their leaders; however Walker and Hewlett (1990) have noted that the leaders have far fewer incidences of dental caries then the non-leaders, indicating that the leaders were most likely eating more meat than the other men and not as many cariogenic foods containing carbohydrates. This could have been due to giving cuts of meat as gifts to the leaders.

Dental mutilation is common in many modern and past societies.  (Romero 1970 cited in Fiorato et al, 2003) has classified at least 69 different types of tooth modification. Social pressures often dictate what the group members should endure to conform to society, or to pull away from it and rebel.

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Another archaeological technique which can be used (in conjunction with others) to estimate the social status of an individual is his/her stature.  A gross generalization would be to say that a person who is taller must have grown up with access to more nutritionally sound food.  Of course, this is difficult to ascertain with the analyses of individuals.  Marrying the information gathered from a single human’s remains with others from the same group will give a much broader picture of that society and averages can be determined.  Along with dental information, skeletal stature information shows malformations and other pathologies which can be linked to nutrition throughout the early life of the individual.  In general terms, people with access to higher quality foods on a regular basis were likely from a higher status than those without.  Studies by both Cook (1981) and Buikstra (1976) suggest just this.  The population, from a Middle Woodlands site in Illinois, was studied using stature and dental analyses.  The presence of non-local grave goods divulged the status of the occupant.  The stature and dental analyses were used as supplemental information. Both studies bore results which suggested that the higher status males (buried with the most impressive grave-goods) were taller on average than those buried with not so lavish goods. The taller males were also buried in the centre of the burial site (suggesting a higher status as well).

Smith’s (1999) paper on Late-Bronze Age sites in mainland Greece measures the stature of several individuals in the test group. “Of the 39 individuals with stature estimates, 35 were high status individuals and only 5 were of low status individuals. Of the five of low status, four were female and only one was male.  Therefore it was only possible to separately analyze the stature/status/sex differences for females (Smith 1999, 111)”. This demonstrates why the study of human remains, while important in its own right, is generally blended with others and assessed as a societal study rather than an individual one.  A short person may not be anything more than one who has reached his greatest genetic stature, which happens to be six inches shorter than the average man in his group or he may be an individual who did not grow up eating the most nourishing foods.  This is one reason why further studies on his neighbours must be performed to generate an accurate hypothesis about his society.

Within the discussion of stature, the belief that populations of today are substantially taller than those in the relatively recent past has always been of interest to archaeologists, historians and physical anthropologists.  Waldron (2006) outlines a study done on remains discovered buried in St. Peter’s Church in Barton-upon-Humber. There showed no change in the mean height of the people in the millennium in which the cemetery was used.  Of course the small fluctuations in mean height due to the Great Famine is blurred out of the big picture due to the high number of years involved in the study, but the study of the remains as individuals would not allow us the knowledge of this stature increase pattern (or lack of).

Study of Human Remains – Part 3

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Julie St Jean
Julie St Jean
(United States) is a Zooarchaeology Consultant based just outside of New York City, USA. Julie’s geographic experience includes excavating in Southern England, Southwest USA, Northeast and mid-Atlantic USA as well as analyzing faunal assemblages from Post-Medieval Scotland, Roman England and Medieval Italy.

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