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

An Introduction to the Bioarchaeology of Upper Nubia and Central Sudan


1Center for Bioarchaeological Research, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, 2Department of Archaeology, Durham University

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Bioarchaeological research began during the first Archaeological Survey of Nubia (1907-1911), necessitated by heightening of the Low Dam at the First Cataract of the Nile, near Aswan, Egypt. Through the pioneering work of medical professionals such as Smith, Jones, Ruffer, and Derry, a biocultural approach to the study of ancient Nubians was initiated, reflecting population-based statistics as well as case studies. During the early 1900s, Reisner also excavated monumental sites (e.g., Kerma, el-Kurru, Nuri) in Upper Nubia. Unlike the campaigns in Lower Nubia, little attention was paid to the human remains from sites investigated in northern and central Sudan. Thus, until recently, most of what is known about ancient Nubian biological affinities, lifeways, health, and identity derives from human remains excavated from the early 1900s-1960s in the northern reaches of Nubia.

New fieldwork and restudy of collections is overturning assumptions, revealing remarkable variability in mortuary behavior, expression of social identity, and health status from Epipaleolithic to Medieval periods along the Middle Nile Valley. The array of sites represented both temporally and geographically allows comparisons among contemporaneous populations and across periods of apparent environmental/climatic alteration, subsistence shifts, socio-political and religious changes. Through such studies, continuity is noted in practices such as dental ablation, while dental pathology often contradicts expectations based on assumed subsistence practices. Organizing principles of cemeteries shift with the adoption of Christianity, signaling changes in social structure. Incorporation of multiple lines of evidence in bioarchaeological studies will continue to solidify our understanding of past people along the Nile.

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