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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus
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Social bodies and lives, then and now

This text focuses on providing selected case studies that provide a snapshot of health and disease for ancient communities. These vignettes of community life are not necessarily representative of every bioarchaeological report on health ever published; rather, they are introductions to the kind of information that is available. Much like today, some individuals within some age defined, sex defined, or socially defined groups are more vulnerable to ill health and early death than are others. One thing that is known is that disease is rarely a random event. Disease is almost always patterned and linked causally to conditions of life within specific places at specific times. This permits utilizing the techniques from paleoepidemiology to population-level data. Epidemiology is the study of disease to understand its patterning and causes with an eye toward prevention and elimination in modern populations. Paleoepidemiology utilizes similar approaches with the goal of clarifying the patterns and underlying biocultural factors in the expression of disease.

Providing scenarios based on scientific data derived from the archaeological context and the human remains reveals insight and new information on how humans responded to and survived (or died in response to) environmental, economic, demographic, dietary, or political changes. Using theoretical frameworks, ideas about the relationship between power and social structure, age, class, gender, ethnic identity, and health are presented using a life history approach. In this way, connections between the past and the present, and lessons that can be learned from studying the past, are focused on (see Chapter 7).

Without social theory, bioarchaeological data may be inherently interesting but difficult to bridge to contemporary problems. Descriptive data derived from ancient human remains and archaeological settings form the building blocks for more integrated approaches. Armelagos (2003: 34) provides a compelling yet cautious exploration of the ways that modern bioarchaeology has the potential for broad understandings of human life when he states,

Bioarchaeology as anthropology will not provide solutions to all the miseries that human face. However, it can provide insights that are essential for understanding our relationship to our environment, how we interacted with it throughout history, and how we are interacting with it now. Bioarchaeology is at the forefront in documenting the evolution and adaptation of human populations . . . [it] should search for relevance to contemporary life.

The current redirection of bioarchaeological research to questions about inequality, identity, gender, status, social control, and other areas of social life demonstrate the broader impacts of bioarchaeological research, and it is reshaping what bioarchaeology is. As stated before, bioarchaeology itself is a relatively new configuration

Map depicting the location of the archaeological sites discussed in the text

FIGURE 1.4 Map depicting the location of the archaeological sites discussed in the text.

within biological anthropology regarding having a set of guiding goals and established methods for the analysis of ancient and historic skeletal remains.

Taking all of this into consideration, four core areas of the U.S. are focused on in this text because they provide a broad overview along with some depth regarding the challenges faced by ancient people to survive and be healthy (Figure 1.4). They represent a variety of different environmental settings, subsistence practices, social organization, cultural contexts, and biocultural features. These also represent areas where there have been focused archaeological and bioarchaeological work over the last several decades and so there is a larger body of data to draw from. These areas are highlighted simply as a way to channel the discussions about ancient bodies and lives and what is known about everyday experiences, especially with respect to health.

 
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