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Chapter Summary

  • The physical remains of past peoples provide direct evidence about their lives. Bioarchaeology is the study of human remains from archaeological sites. Though whole human bodies can be preserved in a variety of ways, including mummification and freezing, the vast majority of human remains recovered by archaeologists are in the form of skeletons and bone fragments.
  • An important part of the analysis of human remains is the identification of physical attributes. The sex of adult skeletal remains, for example, can be determined through observing the shape of the pelvis as well as other bones. Teeth can help establish an individual’s relative age at death, namely whether they were young, adult or old. It is even possible to reconstruct what an individual looked like through careful analysis of skull features.
  • When intact bodies such as mummies are found, the precise cause of death can sometimes be deduced. For skeletal remains, the cause of death can only rarely be determined as most afflictions leave no trace on bone. Only the effects of violence, accident, congenital deformity, and a handful of diseases can be seen on bones.
  • Evidence for early medicine is found through both written and physical sources. Those cultures that developed writing recorded a number of maladies and their respective cures. Physically, archaeological remains can, at times, show the marks of surgery. Surgical equipment has been recovered from contexts all over the world.
  • Demographic archaeology utilizes archaeological information to make estimates about the size, density, and growth rate of populations. This can be done through analysis of settlement data as well as the richness of a particular environment in terms of its animal and plant resources.
  • Much of the best evidence for early population movements comes from the analysis of modern genetic material. The genetic analysis of living populations can only tell us about past cultures that have living descendants.

Key Concepts


Bioarchaeology, p.433

Identifying Physical Attributes

Determining sex, p.435
Determining lifespan, p.437
Epiphyses, p.437
Osteons, p.439
Height, p.439
Weight, p.440
Facial reconstruction, pp.440–42

How Were They Related?

Blood groups, p.443
DNA analysis, pp.443, 445

Assessing Human Abilities

Walking, pp.445–47
Handedness, pp.447–48
Speech, pp.448–50
Cannibalism, pp.450–51, 452
Sexual behavior, p.452

Disease, Deformity, and Death

Forensic archaeology, p.453
Bacteria and parasites, p.456
Evidence of violence, p.458
Harris lines, p.459
Lead poisoning, p.462
Early medicine, pp.464–65

Examining Bodies

Computed axial tomography, pp.454–55
Magnetic Resonance Imaging, pp. 454–55

Assessing Nutrition

Malnutrition, p.466
The rise of agriculture, p.467

Population Studies

Demographic archaeology, p.467
Paleodemography, p.467

Diversity and Evolution

Mitochondrial Eve, p.470
Ancient genomics, p.472

Genetics and Language Histories

Macrofamilies, p.471