The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Narrative, meaning and the future of bioarchaeology


Center for Bioarchaeological Research, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

Thursday 2:15-2:30, Ballroom A Add to calendar

It is only within the last few decades that bioarchaeology emerged from its origins as a largely descriptive science. Since then, the field has witnessed tremendous growth and now applies evolutionary, social, and biocultural theories to the study of past peoples. Perhaps uniquely among disciplines represented within the AAPA, bioarchaeology developed dually from the “New Physical Anthropology” and the “New Archaeology”. This talk discusses the tensions inherent in this developmental trajectory (the “bioarchaeologies”) and attempts to define future directions of outreach, collaboration and research engagement. In particular, function-oriented consideration of past research highlights a basic question that is infrequently drawn to the surface: What is important for everyone (including the public) to know about the past? Bioarchaeology’s approach differs from other disciplines that have a unifying historical narrative (paleoanthropology), produce general knowledge about biological systems (organismal biology), or engage the historical aspects of evolutionary research. In such cases “meaning” and relevance are easily conveyed, both to other researchers and to the general public, by virtue of an existing narrative super-structure. However, bioarchaeology’s emphasis on context (archaeological and ethnohistoric) engenders a particularistic, historically-contingent focus. This both frees and constrains the field as it adjusts to the changing US academic landscape with increasing emphasis on the production of general knowledge and use-oriented research. Building on a tradition of biocultural, health-related studies, emerging emphases define a more humanistic bioarchaeology which may further contribute to the field’s “identity” crisis. Cues from social media and the blogosphere suggest a way forward for the discipline.

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