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

Human bone artifacts as markers of prehistoric populations: critical assessment of evidence from Central California


1Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 2Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Valencia, 3Dental History and Craniofacial Studies, University of the Pacific, 4Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, 5Biomedical Sciences, University of the Pacific

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Evidence for the presence and spread of biological populations in prehistoric contexts frequently relies on cultural markers. A range of artifacts is employed to define a distinctive Central California population (Windmiller Culture, 4700-750y BP) and track this group’s migrations and subsequent assimilation into more recent populations. One of these markers is the manufacture of human bone artifacts. Evidence authentication has relied more on expert opinion, however, than critical evaluation. We provide taxonomic and taphonomic assessment of these artifacts and assess their value in identifying biological populations.

We examined ~60% of the California skeletons in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley (n >8000 individuals), including all Windmiller-associated remains (n=246). We also examined associated site records, reports, and artifact collections to recover material misidentified as non-human and clarify burial contexts. SEM and digital imaging were employed to clarify cultural and non-cultural taphonomic events. Only one Windmiller-associated human bone artifact was authenticated; the remainder are non-human or non-artifactual. Two new non-Windmiller human bone artifacts were identified in the collections while several obscure ones were located in the literature.

Based on a broad assessment of the California collections, we demonstrate that a small series of human bone artifacts derive from prehistoric contexts, but that they are widely distributed in time and represent a pan-Central-California phenomena. This work underscores the need for critical assessment of ‘cultural markers’ of biological populations. Such work is particulary important, until such time as population-level ancient DNA studies can be widely conducted on prehistoric skeletal collections.

Funding provided by Undergraduate Opportunity Fund Grants to: HMO, MDC, EAB.

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