Bioarchaeology at the OSA

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

by Lara Noldner, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

What is Bioarchaeology?

The OSA has changed its formerly titled Burials Program to the Bioarchaeology Program to more accurately portray that our mission is the protection of all ancient human remains in Iowa, regardless of whether they were once part of a formal burial.

Bioarchaeology is a subfield of Physical Anthropology that focuses study on human remains with archaeological context. Human skeletal remains can add an additional, informative layer to knowledge of an archaeological site because the skeleton is a record of past behavior and environmental influences.

From analysis of an adequately preserved individual skeleton we can determine: whether the person was male or female, estimate age, ancestry, height and body mass, determine whether he or she experienced physiologic stress from disease or malnutrition, note any pathologies that were the result of injury or illness, and make inferences about daily activity patterns and diet. When there are numerous individuals associated with an archaeological site, we can combine all the information about individuals listed above to start making inferences about the past population that lived and worked there. We can estimate demographic profiles and the prevalence of disease or malnutrition, and investigate many aspects of people’s daily lives, like mobility patterns, subsistence strategies (including food resources and hunting technology), sexual divisions of labor, and mortuary practices. We can also get an idea of population movement over time by examining a group’s degree of relatedness to the other populations at both global and regional scales. When examined in relation to an archaeological record, any such analyses allow a somewhat clearer picture of the lives of people in the past.

Bioarchaeology cannot fill in all the unknown information about a past population. It is important to keep in mind that human skeletal remains are not always well preserved, which limits the types of analyses possible.

Nonetheless, bioarchaeology is an exciting field of study that is just as multidisciplinary as archaeology. In place of drawing on mainly earth sciences, bioarchaeologists rely on forensic science and biological sciences like human anatomy, genetics, pathology and biomechanics to understand how human biology and habitual movement affect the skeleton.

If you are interested in learning more about bioarchaeology, taking an archaeological field school and a human osteology course is a great way to start. Both are offered here at the University of Iowa.

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