Monday, August 1, 2011

Bones of Study: The Bioarchaeology Perspective

A beginning anthropology student learns that anthropology is “the study of humankind, viewed from the perspective of all people and all times” --Clark Spencer Larsen, Our Origins. This is an apt definition because it includes the fact that everyone, even a group of anthropologists, have different perspectives to bring to the study of humans. It also means that anthropology incorporates a broad spectrum of approaches. This is where the four sub-disciplines of anthropology (linguistic, archaeology, cultural, and biological) come into play. Although they are all part of the same overarching discipline and, therefore, overlap with each other, the unique perspective of each gives a richness to the study of humankind that would be otherwise unattainable. I am a biological anthropologist with a specialty in bioarchaeology (studying human remains in the archaeological context) and my interpretations come from this portion of the sub-discipline which is so close to my heart.

The human skeleton has so much to say, we need only to listen. Where biological anthropology, specifically bioarchaeology, thrives is in telling the story of an individual. With the incorporation of modern technological advances into the traditional methods of study of human remains we have an even greater opportunity to understand past peoples. Through methods such as stable isotope analysis, teeth cementum annulation, and 3D imaging, we are able to not only look at the changes in health, but also more accurately assess age and pathological changes, dietary shifts, and show population movement over time. All this determined from the individuals who actually lived during the time period being assessed. Thus, allowing these same individuals the ability to add their perspective to the study.

Bioarchaeology adds the human presence in a way otherwise unavailable in the archaeological context. This becomes especially important when you consider the amount of social complexity found within a society. Though there may be elites, non-elites, and sometimes a middle class in past societies, none of these are homologous within themselves, and rarely are they mutually exclusive. A lot can be understood by the writings, midden heaps, and differential architecture, to be sure, but without a look at the biology, the subtleties would be lost. By this I mean that the differences in access to resources between social strata would not necessarily be found. The inequalities between members of the same social group, and the small differences between communities less than 100km apart would be lost. These small, seemingly trivial, differences add a wealth of information about the social construction, social group maintenance, and trade relationships of the individuals taking part in the culture. Knowing the status and diet of an individual allows us to determine the availability and social significance place on certain food items, thus bolstering the archaeological interpretations. And it is wise to remember what Winston Churchill meant when he said “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Within biological anthropology today, there is a strong focus on teasing out how populations are connected despite their seemingly inherent biological differences. Part of this is in order to understand social structure, and social change. This is particularly true with regards to human skeletal remains found within the archaeological record. When talking about this past context, it is easy to get caught up in the structures, the writings, and the artifacts left behind. Ethnographic data allows for some understanding of past peoples, but subtle generational changes in social organization, or ritual practices, which cause a re-distribution of resources, can greatly impact the biology and in very quick succession. Therefore, the most accurate way to understand the biology of people from a given time period is to study them directly through an analysis of their skeltons. 

Bioarchaeology allows for these individuals to be heard and for their life histories to be told. It gives an understanding of an individual’s complex life story, rather than categorically grouping them into a lifestyle pattern. Bioarchaeology allows us to know what kinds of foods they ate and how consumption patterns changed over time for them and their descendants. It allows for an assessment of the distribution of resources and whether or not their children and their children’s children had access to a different diet and consequently different health. We can attempt to answer questions pertaining to social inequality, and the amount of difficulty with which it took to survive into adulthood. Each of these points allows us to answer the “What” found within the sub-discipline of biological anthropology, however, the reasons “Why” each of these points are important stems from anthropological theory. Knowing to ask “Why” for these specific points is where the bioarchaeology perspective becomes so important, and also allows for a singular study to be put into the broad framework of anthropology.

Without the biological perspective, an understanding of these elements of human societies would not be part of anthropology. Having said that, if you were to remove biological anthropology from the anthropological lens, it would loose the importance of understanding the individual to better comprehend the complexity of the human species as a whole. For this reason, I truly believe that I am an anthropologist first, and a specialist in my sub-discipline second. Knowing the merits of your sub-discipline is important, but knowing how to fit them into the framework of better understanding humankind is even more so.

Erin Blankenship-Sefczek

No comments: