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

Untold Tales: Skeletons from the Little Bighorn Contrasted with Seventh Cavalry Medical Documents


Anthropology Department, Chico State

Thursday Afternoon, 301E Add to calendar

Skeletal information constitutes the last stand for bioarchaeologists interpreting lives of past populations. But small sample sizes and vagaries of the skeletal system hinder the reliability of conclusions based on skeletal remains, limiting quality, detail and precision of interpretations. Although often acknowledged as inherent challenges, skeletal biologists rarely assess the limits of their analyses.

This study provides such a comparison, contrasting a skeletal series with medical documents. The two sources employed consist of Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 1876) skeletons (MNI=44) and Seventh Cavalry medical records (1866-1884, 20,155 documents). The research hypothesis predicts that skeletons from the Little Bighorn fail to manifest many of the illnesses documented in the Seventh Cavalry’s written records.

The Little Bighorn skeletons demonstrate few ailments shown in the Seventh Cavalry’s medical records. The most frequent skeletal defects consist of congenital, infectious, non-diagnostic and traumatic defects. On the other hand, using the 19th century medical nosology as a framework, nearly two thirds (64.1%) of the records’ ailments could not be diagnosed skeletally. Approximately one third of the records might possibly be demonstrated by the skeletons. And only 0.2 percentage of the medical records directly and certainly involved the skeletal system.

As gripping as the tales that skeletons tell about their illnesses, many stories lie secreted within them or omitted altogether. These deficits, in brief, are the tales the skeletons do not tell.

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