Canterbury Archaeological Trust has uncovered a human skeleton during an excavation. They have asked you to analyze the bones and teeth. What type of osteological information can you provide them with?

Canterbury Archaeological Trust has uncovered a human skeleton during an excavation.  They have asked you to analyze the bones and teeth.  What type of osteological information can you provide them with?

(Author: Andrea)

Marker’s comments

All examples in used must be cited in text. Although some good examples are discussed, the organisation, structure and in particular the grammar are poor, which suggests a lack of planning and proof reading

Mark awarded 48

Osteology is the study of the skeleton( Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 564). When it is referred to human beings, bioarcheology is one of the main subjects involved in this study(Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 522). By studying the bones and teeth of human  fossils remains and more recently dead individuals, many useful information about “the biological component of the archaeological record”(Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 522) the  can be found out. This information are particularly relevant because they can help us to  understand how ancient populations used to live and what were their habits.  The information that are usually looked for while studying a fossil are the age at death of the individual, its sex, its stature, what was its diet and possible diseases it was suffering of. It is actually rare to be able to find out all these information for a single individual, because usually the fossils remains are not very well preserved and may lack some parts important for the research.

In this particular case, as the remains are composed by both bones and teeth, the age at death of the individual should be easy to find out. The most studied part of a fossil used to state the age at death are the bones ( Hunt, Hatch 1981: 461) and the teeth (Cox, Mays 2006: 83). The bones, especially the limbs, are measured in order to understand what level of development they reached. If they turn out to be not completely development they will probably be the ones of a sub adult, on the contrary if they are completely developed they will be the ones of an adult(Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 526). Determine  the age of a sub adult then is easier because at certain ages correspond determinate stages of bones development, while with a completely developed bone the range of possible ages it is much wider. The same goes for teeth, which are considered the most reliable factor of aging at least for young individuals because of the clear patterns of growth they follow, easily associated to a certain age( Cox, Mays 2006: 83).

In addition to be very helpful in determining the age, teeth are also fundamental in determining the diet of the fossil. The diet is determinable because the food we eat leaves  chemical signatures on the teeth ( Mahoney, 2010). It is possible to find out what kind of food individuals used to eat by studying  this chemical signatures. In addition to this,  dental microwear is also a very important base to reconstruct the diet. Dental microwear is basically all the signs that are left on the tooth surface because of the contact with other materials. These signatures are due to a number of factors:  they are left by the food eaten by the individual, but they are also caused post mortem, or might be due to the excavation or cleaning of the tooth (Hillson 2002: 247).   It is then important, while reconstructing the diet, to take into account all the possible causes of tooth wear. Studying tooth wear is important because “At a macroscopic level tooth wear shows some characteristics patterns( Hillson  2002: 292).” This means that from tooth wear we are able to reconstruct the diet and consequentially the subsistence of the individual and presumably of its population. (Hillson 2002: 292).  Another important information teeth can provide us  is the eventual presence of caries, which may be another important hint to reconstruct the diet of the individual (Hillson 2002: 279).

To determine the stature of the individual a look at the bones is essential. In fact methods used to determine the stature are “…mainly based on the lengths of the limb bones, and on the length of the vertebral column, and on the lengths of all the bones that contribute to skeletal height”(Formicola 1993: 351). The success of this method is also due to the quantity of remains, it is obvious that the more bones are found, the more precise and accurate the measurement will be( Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009:  532 533). Stature measurement implies some risks as well. In fact a lot of factors, like presumed age of the individual,  have to be taken into account. In addition is also essential to remember that height varies in populations, and know, even approximately, what population the individual comes from, may be of help( Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 531).

Another important characteristic always looked for is the sex on the individual. Contrarily to the age estimation from the teeth, determine sex is much more simple in adults than in infants or sub adults(Cox, Mays 2006: 118). This is obviously because once reached maturity, sexual characteristics are more evident. Traditionally  sex has been revealed by the pelvis and the skull( Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 529). These are the part of the skeleton that show sexual dimorphism better, and therefore the most studied for this purpose. Female’s pelvis in fact is designed to guarantee successfully birth giving, while in males is structured just to ensure bipedalism ( Cox, Mays 2006: 118).  The skull also shows differences between the sexes, which basically include some physical changes in the male ones during puberty ( while females do not experience these changes)like “elongation of the face, enlargement of the supra-orbital ridges and mastoid process”(Cox, Mays 2006: 119). In any case sexual determination will be one of the most easy feature to find out, and its rate of accuracy is close to 100%( Holman, Bennet, 1991: 421).

The looking for possible disease the individual was suffering from is a limited research. In fact not all the disease leave a mark on the bones or on teeth( Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 533). Therefore this research will just focus on diseases that are traceable from bones ( we analyzed dental caries before).  These disease usually involve bone fractures, that are easily recognised because the sign left on the bones ( Stanford, Allen, Antòn 2009: 534). Another cause of common disease is osteoarthritis (Mahoney 2010).

From an accurate osteological research is then possible to find out many information. These information are useful not only to reconstruct the habits of the single studied individual, but of the whole population the individual is from. In fact these basic information, if researched with success, can basically reconstruct the whole life of the individual. From the fractures on the bones for instance we can understand what kind of lifestyle people were doing, from diet what kind of food was prevalent in a geographic zone. Many information that do not concern the individual are then also traceable indirectly. But usually the success of an osteological research is due to the number and to the condition of the remains and is not just based on the ability of the researchers. But in any case, even if many bones and teeth are uncovered,  is always good to take into account that mistakes can be made as well.

It is possible to state that in an osteological research there are something that are easier to find out than others.


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  • Patrick Mahoney (2010), Human Osteology. [Lecture] University of Kent, Spring Term, Week 15.