The Bioarchaeology of Individuals

The Bioarchaeology of Individuals

The Bioarchaeology of Individuals

The Bioarchaeology of Individuals


"Harnessing the concept of 'the power of one,' this book guides the reader into the past using carefully woven biographies rich in detail and scope."--Anne L. Grauer, Loyola University, Chicago

"The populational approach to bioarchaeology tends to be monochrome in its efforts to answer broader research-oriented questions. This volume splashes the past with color through a select group of individuals who actually experienced it."--Margaret A. Judd, University of Pittsburgh

From Bronze Age Thailand to Viking Iceland, from an Egyptian oasis to a family farm in Canada, The Bioarchaeology of Individuals invites readers to unearth the daily lives of people throughout history. Covering a span of more than four thousand years of human history and focusing on individuals who lived between 3200 BC and the nineteenth century, the essays in this book examine the lives of nomads, warriors, artisans, farmers, and healers.
The contributors employ a wide range of tools, including traditional macroscopic skeletal analysis, bone chemistry, ancient DNA, grave contexts, and local legends, sagas, and other historical information. The collection as a whole presents a series of osteobiographies--profiles of the lives of specific individuals whose remains were excavated from archaeological sites. The result offers a more "personal" approach to mortuary archaeology; this is a book about people--not just bones.


The record of the history of the human condition is provided by a range of sources. This book series focuses on the remarkable fund of data recovered from the contextualized study of ancient human remains. Previous books in the series highlight key trends and circumstances, ranging from global patterns of health and the agricultural transition (Cohen and Crane-Kramer 2007) to the identity and construction of social persona (Knudson and Stojanowski 2009). One of the clear strengths of bioarchaeology is our ability to extend the understanding of human adaptations and population biology into the past based on the study of collections of skeletons. In this volume, Stodder and Palkovich convincingly argue that populations are comprised of individuals and that individuals provide a potentially rich source for developing an informed understanding of the lives, lifeways, and lifestyles of ancestors. Simply, an individual skeleton presents information about identity, life history, circumstances of birth (and death), and the particular roles that person played in a society. The osteobiographic approach (sensu Saul 1972) acknowledges and underscores the importance of individual people and their lives to the history of our species. Importantly, this approach adds considerable richness and meaning to the social and behavioral context for the study of an individual’s bones and teeth.

The editors were inspired by their own research in the American Southwest, realizing especially the significant gap in relating the bioarchaeological record to the lives of individual persons. They present here a collection of essays encompassing a diversity of settings and personages from around the world. After reading these accounts, I came away feeling that I had met each of the people and knew something of their role in society and their life challenges and the highlights of their lives from birth to death. These essays tell us that bioarchaeologists are in a unique position to relate a prehistoric or historic person’s story in a well-informed way.

One of the most amazing of the essays pertains to the “Axed Man” from Mosfell, Iceland. Near a Viking longhouse, a building occupied by important chieftains and their families, bioarchaeologist Phillip Walker and his colleagues recovered the remains of an older adult male Viking. Having survived multiple challenges affecting his health, this middle-age man died suddenly and violently. Dramatic cuts on the side and back of his head, produced by an ax and by a sword, respectively, tell a vivid story of violence and death. As is so . . .

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