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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus
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The past does not need us, but the future does

The documentation of disease patterns in the past must be ultimately channeled back into the discussion of human behavior and culture change. For example, the patterns ofvariability in health and disease by age group, sex, and period for the people living in the Georgia Bight region have revealed something about the capacity of humans living through and adapting to major changes in their lifestyles, subsistence activities, diet, and environments. It was shown that humans sometimes suffer through these changes, and other times they modify, adapt, and expand their cultural and behavioral repertoire of responses.

Skeletal analysis as anthropological inquiry takes advantage of health data to assess short- and long-term consequences of adaptation. We can never know all the factors that played into the success of these past populations in adapting to all of the changes they have lived through over a 500-year span. While focusing on some important and major contributing factors in the preceding chapters, information concerning the people who were the ancestors of today’s Native Americans comes more into focus.

There are ways to think about the past that have relevance today. For example, Madsen has investigated the possible use by ancient inhabitants of the Pueblo Southwest of grasshoppers and crickets in their ancient diet. He suggests that insects as a food resource made a “great deal of economic sense” (1989: 25). In one test case, 1,452 Mormon crickets were collected in one hour from bushes, grass, and the ground surface in Dinosaur National Monument along the Colorado—Utah border. Madsen estimates this amount to equal more than two pounds of edible, high-quality protein collected in one hour. This could be translated to four quarter- pounders in one hour of work.

In summarizing the experiences based on human remains, we have made considerable effort not to overinterpret the data. There has been a concerted effort to challenge some traditional stereotypes about human behavior by presenting alternative hypotheses whenever possible. Bioarchaeology is reaching a critical mass now where practitioners are benefiting from building on certain kinds of studies so that data can be linked across time and space as appropriate. In this way it can grow, diversify, and expand into ever-new areas of inquiry.

Bioarchaeology has a unique role to play here in that we can talk about the lives of all people within a community. We are interested in how people interacted and in how those cultural interactions shaped biology for the better (e.g., cultural buffering against disease or malnutrition) or for the worse (e.g., structural violence or pregnancy food taboos). Without the rigorous analysis of the actual human bones and teeth, such information may be lost, and our understanding of the past would be incomplete.

The common denominator across these kinds of studies will be a fierce commitment to systematic and robust empirical data collection that crosses different domains of biology and culture (which includes environment), and uses that data to test hypotheses. Hypotheses that are constructed using theorized ideas about human behavior in particular situations will facilitate providing meaning to the interpretations. That is the raison d’etre of all of anthropological work — to explain human behavior so that there can be more mutual and beneficial outcomes for people living today. It really should be the goal of every bioarchaeologist to make the world a better place for people today and for people in the future (Martin et al. 2013).

One way to think about how to link the past to the present is this way. A cultural historian, Rebecca Solnit, ruminated in a thoughtful essay about the long arc of human history and how seeing important shifts in human behavior or social processes can sometimes take many generations or even longer. It was a call for taking the long view in understanding the ebb and flow of human behavior, population growth and decline, catastrophies, and social change. It was also a call for working to ameliorate endemic social problems facing people today such as poverty, inequality, poor health and diet, rampant preventable diseases, climatic catastrophes, and social violence. Urgency in attending to these historically contingent, locally placed, and globally relevant problems was conveyed in this way: “the past doesn’t need us. The past guides us; the future needs us” (Solnit 2013).

This is a good way to envision research outcomes in bioarchaeology in a broader context. While bioarchaeology focuses on reconstructing the past, equally important is to make the past a guide for preparing for and dealing with the future. The bioarchaeological approach to understanding the past can document long chronologies of human activities, such as suffering and loss of life, with lines of evidence coming from traces of human bodies; the places humans lived, thrived, and died; and the durable things they created. Indeed, bioarchaeological data comes from all over the world, represents hundreds of different periods and cultures, and provides information on not only human deaths but also on the lived experience within their cultural and physical environments. In this light, the collective bioarchaeological studies discussed in this volume are guides for how to think about the future.

Bioarchaeology is at its best when it provides scientifically sound interpretations of the past that illuminate crucial moments in human history. There is no lack of interest in the past as demonstrated by the number of television programs dedicated to the ancient world. Turning an interesting and exotic finding about the past into something compelling in the modern world is an area where the bioarchaeological approach is most useful. If bioarchaeology and the study of human remains cannot be demonstrated to have relevance to today and by extension, into the future, it will be increasing difficult to “sell” to the public, to students, and to granting agencies.

There is much that can be learned from the past that is relevant to the present and to the future, particularly when the findings shed light on aspects of modern life that are not well understood or events coming down the road for which it is not clear how humans will fare. Bioarchaeology focuses on human adaptation in diverse biosocial environments during times of extreme challenges. Most would agree that the future needs explication, but we can only estimate human behaviors based on past responses. The past is there to be a guide in the same way that hindsight does. Bioarchaeology is poised to play a larger role in using the past as a guide because it integrates biological and cultural aspects of human life, and this is a unique scientific contribution; no other discipline has this multifaceted approach reconstructing the past as humans lived it.

There are many motivations underlying the desire to know more about humans in the distant past. Using scientific methods and hypothesis testing to reveal behavioral patterns (or lack of patterning) across different groups can yield unique insights into the human condition. These insights range from documenting the origins and evolution of human diseases to providing knowledge about ancestral diets and patterns of violence. Taken together, bioarchaeological studies shine a light on a part of human evolutionary and social history that is generally not well understood.

Anemia, osteoarthritis, communicable infectious diseases, and others common ailments are as much a problem for people today as they were in the past. The bioarchaeological data from ancient skeletons anchor this problem within a much larger time span and provide cross-cultural perspectives. Having the complete skeleton, as bioarchaeologists do, to test for toxic levels would only be possible on cadavers by modern-day researchers, which are difficult to come by. Bioarchaeologists have whole assemblages that represent all ages and both sexes. The interconnected ways that bioarchaeological investigations provide additional insight for the ongoing debates about lead ingestion by children are important. They bring to the fore the ways that biology and culture interact, as well as examine what underlies human foibles in disease prevention. This type of research also provides longitudinal evidence for how lead exposure can affect populations (e.g., Nriagu 1983). The past in this example is crucial as a guide for viewing lead poisoning within a broader perspective.

If modern bioarchaeology is to mature with the times and to accommodate increasing numbers of interested undergraduate and graduate students, it will necessarily need to build on ways to further integrate diverse data sets in the service of engaging in questions of significance to a broad audience. There is ample evidence that this is the trajectory bioarchaeology is on. What could grease the wheels for an integrated and engaged bioarchaeology is the opportune use of social theory.

The various indicators of stress seen across the life history of the earliest Americans certainly have overlapping etiologies, but the pattern of these changes confirm that disease was ubiquitous, affected infants and children to a degree not seen in adults, and was more likely related to morbidity than to mortality. There are lessons to be learned from these enterprising and resilient groups of early Americans. Behavioral flexibility has been hailed as the hallmark of human evolution, the outstanding feature that marks the path of human existence for the last several million years. However, the historical fact of colonization and subjugation has typically left indigenous people with few behavioral or cultural options. Modern progress and development, as it has been played out in traditional societies worldwide, are based on the routinization, standardization, and homogenization of human potential and human behaviors. This is not what we see in their ancestors and in the ancient populations.

Without the skeletal remains, we could not have discovered the adaptations for flexibility and responsiveness to change that define ancient people’s existence. From death, patterns of life have emerged that speak to some very basic concerns that plague human groups today. The ancestral indigenous people may be no longer living, but their culture history and adaptations will live on as we come to better understand their remarkable duration and vitality in diverse regions across the U.S.

 
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