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

From bones to bodies using social theory

Bioarchaeology is an evidence-based and interdisciplinary field of study within anthropology that focuses on human remains (skeletonized or mummified) from ancient and historic archaeological contexts. The goal of bioarchaeology is to elucidate how people in the past lived within their societies, how populations change over time, and how societies interacted within and between regions. Combined with social theory, these understandings of our collective past can act as a guide for clarifying troublesome aspects of the times we currently live in and for understanding how these present realities came to be. Social theories are frameworks that focus attention on particular facets of human social interactions, organizations, and behaviors (Powers 2010: 5). Without social theories to aid bioarchaeological studies of ancient health data from human remains, it would be quite descriptive and lacking in broader meaning and interpretation.

This text explores health in America before Columbus. The time frame focused on is about ad 1000 to 1500, which is the 500 years or so prior to contact with colonists following 1492. The term America is used here as a shorthand reference to the U.S. portion of North America. This geographically reins in what is covered. As one could imagine, adding Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America would be extraordinarily difficult to synthesize in a single volume. The goal of this text is to provide a better understanding of the people that were in the U.S. prior to colonization and what in broad brushstrokes their experiences were like. Data derived from burials and human bones are rarely mentioned in U.S. history books, and even those texts that deal with Native Americans often focus more on the colonial period than on the precolonial period.

For much of the ancient world in America, there are no written records to reveal details of social life. Other forms of visual representation of daily life are available in the form of iconography, pottery images or rock art (Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2), but human biological remains provide a uniquely rich source of information on the lived experiences of individuals and populations. Bioarchaeology relies on a biocultural approach to facilitate the integration of data from human remains (biology) with other diverse data sets emanating from cultural and environmental spheres of influence. In this approach, social theory enhances and illuminates aspects of life. Also, theory helps flesh out the larger political and economic structures that

Pottery image depicting two human figures on a Mimbres pot circa AD 1000 from the Mogollon culture

FIGURE 1.1 Pottery image depicting two human figures on a Mimbres pot circa AD 1000 from the Mogollon culture (New Mexico and Arizona). While these forms of communication likely depict important aspects of the culture, it is difficult to say what that might be. Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art, published with permission.

Rock art (petroglyphs) from New Mexico depicting a hunchback figure playing a flute

FIGURE 1.2 Rock art (petroglyphs) from New Mexico depicting a hunchback figure playing a flute. These are replicated across the ancient Southwest landscape, and they deliver some very specific message or communication, but to date, it is not clear what that might have been. Modified from an image created by Einar Einarsson Kvaran, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under Universal Public Domain.

shape daily experiences and impact general health and well-being over long periods. Social theory also facilitates the capacity to formulate causal relationships that explain when, how, and why certain events in human history occurred.

Bridging social theory with bioarchaeology provides an effective way of formulating and evaluating hypotheses about humans and social life to interpret both synchronic moments in time as well as diachronic sequences of cultural history reaching far back in time. Bioarchaeology can provide intimate portraits of life that span the life course of individuals, providing snapshots of daily, seasonal, annual, and generational aspects of human experience. Life-course theory provides bioarchaeologists with insight into diet, health, injury, growth, maintenance, and reproductive functions because skeletal assemblages often include individuals of both sexes who died at varying ages (Agarwal and Glencross 2011b: 6; Halcrow and Tayles 2011: 337). In addition, bioarchaeological data provides information at multiscalar levels so that groups can be examined at the individual, community, regional, and interregional levels (Geller 2012). As a subdiscipline within anthropology, bioarchaeology focuses on cross-cultural comparisons of humans in varied and distinctive settings focusing, for example, on different subsistence economies, different political structures, or contrasting environmental settings. Even when there are written documents, the human remains and associated archaeological contexts often reveal a more nuanced, detailed, and authentic account of what social life was really like for individuals and groups.

Thus, bioarchaeological data are universally important when thinking about the past because of its added value in substantiating biological, cultural, and environmental dynamics. The data derived from the bodies of people long gone do not speak for themselves. Interpretations of bioarchaeological data rely heavily on the judicious use of social theories, either tacitly or explicitly. Some of the most applicable social theories being used by bioarchaeologists today are drawn from cultural and medical anthropology in part because it is in those areas where the body has been theorized in ways that facilitate thinking in more complex and nuanced ways about the concomitant forces affecting and shaping things such as poor health or early death.

Integrating bioarchaeological data with social theory is important because the stakes are high. The world is full of troubles and problems for which there are no easy answers. Bioarchaeological data reveal ways that humans in the past have innovated and overcome problems in different places under varying circumstances. The work that bioarchaeologists do traverses time and space, as well as biology and culture, in unique ways. It also provides scientific and empirical information on ancient and historic groups that cannot be easily obtained from other kinds of studies. Thus, its contributions to the anthropological enterprise of explaining complex human behaviors are distinctive and necessary in explicating relationships among the multitude of factors affecting human well-being.

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