Ancient Skeletons – What Can We Learn From Them?
“There is something about a closet that makes a skeleton terribly restless” …Wilson Mizner
There is an abundance of knowledge that we can attain by analysing ancient skeletons. We can learn all sorts of things about the individual their physical attributes, diet, activities, health, age and cause of death. However we can go further, examining multiple individuals from the same area can tell us about a group/species and this information can teach us how they lived and what did and didn’t work for them.
Between 2008 and 2012,
archeologists excavated the rubble of an ancient hospital in England.
In the process, they uncovered a number of ancient skeletons. One in particular belonged to a wealthy male who lived in the 11th or 12th century and died of leprosy between the ages of 18 and 25.
“How do we know all this?”
Simply by examining some old, soil-caked bones.
Even centuries after death, skeletons carry unique features that tell us about their identities.
And using modern tools and techniques, we can read those features as clues.
This is a branch of science known as biological anthropology.
It allows researchers to piece together details about ancient individuals and identify historical events that affected whole populations.
When researchers uncover ancient skeletons, some of the first clues they gather, like age and gender, lie in its morphology, which is the structure, appearance, and size of a skeleton.
Bones, like the clavicle, stop growing at age 25, so a skeleton with a clavicle that hasn’t fully formed must be younger than that.
Similarly, the plates in the cranium can continue fusing up to age 40, and sometimes beyond. By combining these with some microscopic skeletal clues, physical anthropologists can estimate an approximate age of death.
Meanwhile, pelvic bones reveal gender.
Biologically, female pelvises are wider, allowing women to give birth, whereas males are narrower. Bones also betray the signs of ancient disease. Disorders like anemia leave their traces on the bones. And the condition of teeth can reveal clues to factors like diet and malnutrition, which sometimes correlate with wealth or poverty.
A protein called collagen can give us even more profound details.
The air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat leaves permanent traces in our bones and teeth in the form of chemical compounds. These compounds contain measurable quantities called isotopes. Stable isotopes in bone collagen and tooth enamel varies among mammals dependent on where they lived and what they ate.
So by analyzing these isotopes, we can draw direct inferences regarding the diet and location of historic people. Not only that, but during life, bones undergo a constant cycle of remodeling. So if someone moves from one place to another, bones synthesized after that move will also reflect the new isotopic signatures of the surrounding environment.
“That means that ancient skeletons can be used like migratory maps.”
For instance, between 1-650 AD, the great city of Teotihuacan in Mexico bustled with thousands of people. Researchers examined the isotope ratios in skeletons’ tooth enamel, which held details of their diets when they were young. They found evidence for significant migration into the city. A majority of the individuals were born elsewhere. With further geological and skeletal analysis, they may be able to map where those people came from. That work in Teotihuacan is also an example of how bio-anthropologists study skeletons in cemeteries and mass graves, then analyze their similarities and differences.
From that information, they can learn about cultural beliefs, social norms, wars, and what caused their deaths.
Today, we use these tools to answer big questions about how forces, like migration and disease, shape the modern world. DNA analysis is even possible in some relatively well-preserved ancient remains. That’s helping us understand how diseases like tuberculosis have evolved over the centuries so we can build better treatments for people today.
Ancient skeletons can tell us a surprisingly great deal about the past.
Learning From Skeletons:
Look for the sagittal suture – the squiggly line that runs the length of the skull – and note whether is it’s completely fused. If it is, the remains are likely to be of someone older than 35. Look for a second line at the front of the skull — the coronal suture – which fully fuses by age 40.
Study the teeth. If they’re worn down it could be a sign of a poor diet. If they’re well-maintained and/or have good dental work such as fillings, they were able to afford proper dental care—another clue as to the identity of your skeleton. Consult a scientist who specializes in teeth, known as an odontologist. They can determine how old a person was at death, what kind of health they were in and what kind of diet they had.
Examine where the ribs join the sternum. This is also a good indicator of age. A forensic anthropologist will compare it against a database of standard markers and it is often more accurate as it is not a weight-bearing bone and remains unaffected by childbirth.
Look for the pubic symphysis, which is the joint located in the pelvis. The older the person at death, the more pitted and craggy these bones will be. Forensic anthropologists will compare this against a database of standard markers to learn the age of the skeleton. Check if there are any soft marks on the cartilage which are left by childbirth as the bones soften to allow easier birth.
To identify gender, assess the pelvis shape; men have a narrow, deep pelvis and women a wider, shallower pelvis, better-suited to carrying a baby. For a quick identification in the field, a forensic anthropologist will find the notch in the fan-shaped bone of the pelvis and stick their thumb into it. If there’s room to wiggle the thumb, then it’s a female; if it’s a tight fit, it’s the skeleton of a man
Examine the wrists, as bones often hold clues to the primary work of the decedent. Bony ridges form where the muscles were attached and pulled over the years. A forensic anthropologist might find a bony ridge on the wrist and decide the dead person may have been someone who used their hands for a living, such as a chef or seamstress.
DNA samples may be taken from any existing hair tissue. As well as positively identifying someone, it can also identify a person’s race or tribal origins.
When the skeleton is first discovered, take samples from around the remains including any bugs you come across. Insects such as blowflies have a very distinct lifecycle and often plant their eggs on newly deceased bodies. By identifying the stage of the lifecycle, a near-exact time of death can be established. This science is known as forensic entomology.
Identifying Physical Attributes:
Life Expectancy: How long did they live?
It is difficult to determine precisely how old an individual was when he or she died, based solely on skeletal remains. Instead individuals are usually classified into general age categories. The categories most commonly used are fatal (before birth), infant (0-3 years), child (3-12 years), adolescent (12-17 years), young adult (18-30 years), middle adult (30 – 50 years) and old adult (over 50). Determining age at death includes examining both bones (which focus on closure of individual bones) and dentation. However the best indicator of age, are the teeth. We can study the eruption and replacement of milk teeth, the sequence of eruption of the permanent dentation, and finally the degree of wear. This analysation of bones and teeth in particular usually provides us with a relatively accurate idea of the age of an individual.
Appearance: What did they look like?
Archaeologists and anthropologists used to have to rely on either the quality of preservation of remains or the art surrounding the remains to give them an idea of their physical appearance. However during the ninetieth century German anatomists began attempts to reconstruct faces in order to produce likeness from the skulls of celebrities such as Schiller, Kant and Bach. Today anthropologists go through a process of using computerized techniques for matching facial proportions and features to create a realistic portrait of the individual.
There are several kinds of evidence which are used to determine the particular foods that people were eating. These are human skeletal remains, human waste and human soft tissue.
Human Skeletal Remains:
‘Through an analysis of isotopes and trace elements in bone, human skeletal remains provide a good indication of the kinds of foods eaten. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen isotopes is different among various kinds of plants and animals, and when food are eaten as a regular part of people’s diet, those ratios are imprinted.’ However diet can also be found by analysis of human teeth. Wear patterns of teeth can be used to make broad inferences. A diet with a lot of hard, gritty food for example would wear down the teeth more than one that isn’t.
Human coprolites are usually found in dry caves and although rare, they can provide us with some of the best and most reliable information on the individual’s diet.
This is because human coprolites contain the remnants of food products such as partially digested seeds or leaves as well as small bones from birds and fish. Indicators of also include plant stalks and roots as well as other parts of animals. These samples of plant remains can tell us the type of plant it is and therefore give us an idea of the climate, environment and perhaps local area in which in the individual lived.
Human Soft Tissue:
“The absolute best method of determining diet is from food found in the stomach and intestines of human remains preserved through extreme environmental conditions.”
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