Bioarchaeology in the U.S. today

There were three major intellectual shifts that are relevant to situating modern bioarchaeology in the U.S. The first was the movement toward integrating human remains with archaeological context in the 1970s and the adoption of the term bio-archaeological research describing this new approach (Buikstra 1977: 69). Another watershed moment came in 1990 with the passage of legislation in the U.S. referred to as NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) mandating that bioarchaeologists integrate human remains with ethical considerations (Rose et al. 1996: 81-82). NAGPRA-like legislation was soon to follow in many other parts ofthe world. The third shift was the movement toward integrating human remains with social theory, resulting in what is called “social bioarchaeology” (Agarwal and Glencross 2011a: 3). Agarwal and Glencross characterize these three shifts as “waves of engagement” (2011a: 2), and they focus on the movement away from typological classification and description towards the use of ever-expanding new technologies to ask increasingly complex questions. They suggest that we are now in a third wave of engagement, stating that “contemporary bioarchaeology is now clearly a discipline poised to engage with social theory . . . in building a social bioarchaeology, scientists are engaged in the construction of the biological and social essence of individuals” (2011a: 3).

Similar to these developments in the U.S., bioarchaeologists in Canada, Mexico, South America, Australia, and Europe have also been moving more toward research that utilizes social theory and that aims to grapple with larger questions of human adaptability. Cutting-edge theoretical work has come out of bioarchaeological studies from these countries, making clear that there is a larger international community of scholars whose methods, theories, and data are shared. For example, Sofaer’s work in England on theorizing the body in bioarchaeology was one of the first dedicated to reshaping how human remains are viewed (2006: 11) and calling for remains to be interrogated and theorized in ways similar to other forms of material culture. Bodies in Sofaer’s approach are seen as being not only as biological but also as symbolic and representational. This necessitates the inclusion of social theory in making meaning at that level of analysis. Sofaer’s framework for theorizing ancient bodies is used widely by bioarchaeologists in the U.S.

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