Bones are a bioarchaeologist's bread and butter.
Bones are a bioarchaeologist's bread and butter. Whether we're simply examining them or destroying them (for science!), we must literally know them inside and out. That's where osteology--the study of bones and teeth--comes in. Any self-respecting bioarchaeologist should be able to name each bone in the body (fragmented or whole), side the bone, and identify all the bone's "landmarks." Furthermore, bioarchaeologists should also be able to determine the individual's sex, ancestry, and approximate age at death from the skeleton. These are basic skills that we learn in university and expand upon in graduate school. Some people choose to supplement their human osteological knowledge with zooarchaeology--the study of faunal (animal) remains--, since humans and animals were closely linked in olden days. But the point is that osteology is fundamental.
Confession: Osteology is also dry (pun intended) and somewhat abstract. What you do with it, how you apply it, is the fun part. It's one thing to identify a healed fracture of the tibia (shin bone), but it's a lot more interesting to interpret that healed fracture. Is there evidence of other skeletal trauma (healed or unhealed)? Was that trauma inflicted by weapons, or was it accidental? What are the individual's sex and age at death? What was the provenience--in other words, what are the burial conditions of the skeleton (e.g., burial position, presence of grave goods)? What is the historical context?
Answering these questions opens up a whole, new world of skeletal analysis. It grants a snapshot into the life of an individual who lived and died hundreds or thousands of years ago. And when you add to the mix other anthropological and scientific disciplines, such as zooarchaeology, cultural anthropology, or biochemistry (e.g., stable isotope analysis), you can paint an astonishingly detailed picture of that individual's life. From the bones and teeth themselves, we learn things like origin (where he/she was born), diet, nutritional health (e.g., metabolic diseases in life), quality of food (heavily worn teeth in a youngish individual indicates hard food or grit in food), age, sex, ancestry, motherhood (childbirth leaves marks on the female pelvis), interpersonal relationships (skeletal trauma=violence?), culture, and sometimes socioeconomic status. Thus, while osteology is essential to bioarchaeological research, it is merely the tip of the iceberg in what a bioarchaeologist can discover about a skeleton.
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