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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus


The people who lived within what is now referred to as the U.S. prior to the colonial invasion in the 1500s were numerous and culturally diverse, and they spoke many different languages. But they did not use traditional forms of writing, so they did not leave behind tablets or scrolls detailing their daily lives, their diets, their ailments, their social institutions, or their political structures. All of this must be inferred from the remains of their built environment and constructed cultural milieu that have survived the ravages of time. The physical traces left behind are what archaeologists focus their research on. Information about ancient people only becomes available when archaeologists excavate, retrieve, and analyze the remnants of these complex, dynamic, and multidimensional ancient villages and early cities.

Bioarchaeologists are specialists who have many years of training in human biology and anatomy with a special focus on osteology (bones and teeth). While muscle, organs and flesh degrade quickly over time when placed under soil, often bones and teeth preserve indefinitely. In some places, such as the American Southwest, dry desert conditions facilitate the preservation of hard tissues such as bone and teeth for hundreds or thousands of years. In places where abundant rain, seasonal temperature fluctuations, and thick vegetation are found, human remains are far less likely to survive for long periods. Dry and undisturbed locations such as caves or places where freezing and thawing do not occur are also good for preserving hard tissues of the human body. Natural mummification of soft tissue and hair is rare although not unknown for the U.S. Naturally skeletonized bodies from the past are much more common.

Bioarchaeologists are anthropologists, and they are most interested in understanding human behavior over the long arc of time. Specifically bioarchaeologists focus on bodies because they reveal tangible biological features of each individual human and because bodies are also influenced and shaped by cultural and environmental forces. Remnants of these biocultural bodies in the form of bones and teeth are the data sets that they work with. With bone and teeth, combined with the context that they are found in, bioarchaeologists can partially reconstruct the lives of individuals, groups of individuals, communities, and populations. This text provides some snapshots into how that is done.

Working with human remains (also sometimes referred to as burials) and the bony remnants of humans from the past is fraught with ethical issues. There is nearuniversal disapproval of the scientific study of ancient American human remains from tribal representatives whose job it is to keep their ancestors from being dishonored and disrupted. Tribal scholars have written extensively about the pain and suffering that excavation and analysis brings to their communities because they often see these scientific activities as disturbing the dead and as acts of desecration in spiritual and sacred places (for examples of this, refer to Fine-Dare 2002). This is discussed in more depth later in this chapter because working with human remains in the U.S. may be seen as unethical by some, so the moral dimensions of this kind of work must be parsed out at every step. Within the community of scholars who specialize in skeletal analysis, each researcher working with human remains ultimately crafts his or her own set of guidelines based on his or her particular approach and philosophy. Researchers are guided by a mix of legislative, scientific, theoretical, and ethical principles. There is no one right way to work as a bioarchaeologists because each setting within the U.S. where there has been excavation and the study of human remains is unique with its own set of challenges and constraints.

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