Bioarchaeology emphasizes a range of methodological approaches
For some, bioarchaeology is first and foremost and archaeological endeavor. Oxen- ham and Tayles (2006), bioarchaeologists from New Zealand and Australia working in Southeast Asia, suggest that bioarchaeology emphasizes the uniquely human biology component of the archaeological record. They feel that it is an emphasis on one of the more important pieces of the archaeological record that many archaeologists fail to appreciate. While most archaeological focus is often on pottery and tools, they point out that “human remains are the people who created the pots, the tools, the houses, the middens and the modified landscapes” and are therefore “central to any research of past society that uses archaeology as the means of data recovery” (Oxenham and Tayles 2006).
Bioarchaeologists with a strong history of scholarly research and publications tend to utilize words such as context and integration in their opening statements on what bioarchaeology is vis-a-vis their current project. In an edited volume titled The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head, Bonogofsky (2011: 1) writes that bioarchaeology “integrates biological data and archaeological context, stressing the interaction between biology and behavior” and that “researchers are increasingly recognizing the advantages of such an integrated approach and putting it into practice in a variety of temporal and spatial contexts.” This captures the intent and direction of bioarchaeology by emphasizing the cross-cultural and diverse periods from which the studies are derived.
Tung’s (2012: xv) book titled Violence, Ritual, and the Wari Empire offers that “[b]ioarchaeological inquiry can tell us about the lived experiences of people . . . it provides a direct means of analysis by focusing on the human body itself . . . [it] show[s] how social structures and the environment may have profoundly affected . . . behavior and health.” Perry and Buikstra (2012: 1) refer to bioarchaeology in their introduction to an edited volume on Bioarchaeology and Behavior: The People of the Ancient Near East, as simply “contextualized skeletal biology.” These texts both frame research questions that can be answered with the empirical data using not only the skeletal remains at hand but also using additional lines of evidence drawn from the reconstruction of social organization and social structures.
Baadsgaard, Boutin, and Buikstra (2012) edited a volume titled Breathing New Life into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology. In the introductory chapter the authors define bioarchaeology as “the contextual interpretation of human remains,” and they go on to suggest that there is no one way to accomplish this because bioarchaeology “encompasses myriad strategies for the study of mortuary remains from archaeological sites” (Buikstra et al. 2012: 3). In their view, what bioarchaeology is and what bioarchaeologists do incorporates many different approaches and strategies. In differentiating their notion of bioarchaeology from some others, they state that “Buikstra’s bioarchaeology has increasingly focused upon social theory across a broad range of situations, including archaeological, historical, and ethnohistorical contexts” (2012: 9). This illustrates the move toward having social theory be an integral part of the research strategy.
Perhaps in response to these variations in defining precisely what bioarchaeology aims to be, Buikstra introduced the notion of“the bioarchaeologies” to denote the different approaches that bioarchaeologists appear to take (see Buikstra 2006: 348; Buikstra et al. 2012: 9). However, DiGangi and Moore (2012: 13-14) dismiss that these approaches warrant being known as separate bioarchaeologies, stating that “ [r] egardless of the approach taken towards bioarchaeological inquiry, the questions being asked are the same.”
What seems clear from these characterizations of bioarchaeology is that it has generally replaced the areas of studies and expertise formerly called osteology and skeletal biology. Yet all bioarchaeologists have deep and broad training, experience with, and commitment to the fields of osteology including bone morphology, biology, physiology, and pathology as detailed in the previous section. These are core fundamental aspects of any analysis of human remains. Whether bioarchaeologists go on to emphasize the archaeological context, dietary questions, sex ratios within burial populations, or mitochondrial DNA depends on their particular interests. Most important, all bioarchaeologists share common notions about osteology, cultural context, and integration.
Thus, bioarchaeology is methodologically and analytically united across many approaches, diverse strategies, and different kinds of question asking and hypothesis testing. A favorite definition of ours was penned by Ortner (2006: xiv) who offered that “bioarchaeology is an interpretive framework for the diverse data obtained today . . . integration ofcultural and biological data is central . . . [t]his linkage brings a far richer understanding of biological data.” If one defines bioarchaeology as an interpretive framework, as suggested by Ortner, it maintains a central core feature of what distinguishes bioarchaeology from osteology and skeletal biology and yet unites all researchers within this field. It also implies that interpretation can only come from an integration of biology with culture, that is, the whole of the context within which these humans whose remains are being queried lived within. It also recognizes that within this interpretive framework, some studies will take more descriptive approaches and others will be more integrative and broad.
The diversity in approaches is further supported by the kinds of studies any scholar decides to carry out. Bioarchaeological studies are pieces of a puzzle that help explain why there are such things as disease and early death in some populations but not others. Bioarchaeology has the capacity to address long-standing human problems associated with social behaviors underlying violence and warfare, hierarchy and inequality, subsistence activities and sustainability, and pain and suffering. Additionally, bioarchaeologists have begun to grapple with notions of identity of the individual within society and ethnic identity at more aggregate levels. A growing number of bioarchaeologists are exploring the similarities and differences within the sexes by analyzing the underlying cultural processes that produce and reproduce social behaviors such as patriarchy and the sexual division of labor or the problems that underlie differential patterns in mortality and morbidity and age- related health problems. Additionally, bioarchaeological studies often shine a light on infants and children in terms of the risks they may face. Thus, there is a wide range of approaches to how studies are undertaken and presented, but they are all attempts at explicating human behavior in particular settings and periods.