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

A look at the literature: Recent developments and long-term trends in the interpretation of skeletal stress markers and ancient health


1Department of Anthropology, University of Northern Colorado, 2Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia

Friday 1:30-1:45, Ballroom A Add to calendar

The term “health” has broad colloquial recognition but is impossible to quantify. Even within the health care community, there is debate about the definition of “health” because any number of factors, including disease, infection, nutritional quality, social status, and psychological factors, can influence a person’s wellbeing. Bioarchaeologists commonly discuss health, lifestyle, and wellbeing in past populations. However, as difficult as these concepts are to define and measure in living populations, health becomes even more complex when dealing with past populations. As a result, stress—or physiological disruption—is often used as a proxy for health in past populations. Although physiological disruption cannot be measured directly in skeletons, numerous skeletal manifestations are used to infer stress, including porotic hyperostosis, cribra orbitalia, linear enamel hypoplasia, dental caries, periostitis, osteoarthritis, and skeletal trauma. When discussing stress, rather than health, bioarchaeologists recognize that the social, political, and psychological aspects of health may not be readily identifiable in the skeleton.

A meta-analysis of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1980-present) indicates a need for greater clarity in bioarchaeological understanding of the terms “stress” and “health.” In approximately one of every five instances of bioarchaeological papers concerning paleopathology and paleodemography, authors are overly ambitious in their claims to be studying past “health.” Rather than fatally limiting bioarchaeology, stricter definitions of “health” and “stress” improve bioarchaeologists’ accuracy in interpreting the lives of ancient peoples, and offer an impetus for increased interdisciplinarity.

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