Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Challenges in Approaches to Skeletal Stature Estimation: An Example from Prehistoric Eastern Mississippi and Western Alabama

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Challenges in Approaches to Skeletal Stature Estimation: An Example from Prehistoric Eastern Mississippi and Western Alabama

Article excerpt

Growth is generally considered to be one of the best indicators of adaptive success for human populations (Steckel 2008). Even given that genetics play a role in shaping growth, many have argued that environmental factors have a more extensive influence in determining stature (e.g., Auerbach 2011:230; Danforth 1999; Frisancho 1993); in fact, some studies have suggested that under ideal, well-nourished conditions, similar patterns in body size will be exhibited by various worldwide human populations (Martorell and Habicht 1986). A wealth of data implicates socioeconomic status, particularly as it affects chronic malnutrition and/or infection at key periods of growth and development, as impeding individuals from reaching their full height potential (Bogin 1999, 2001; Cameron 2002; Eveleth and Tanner 1976, 1990; Frisancho 1993; Johnston and Zimmer, 1989; Saunders 1992; Tanner et al. 1982; Ulijaszek et al. 1998). It should be noted, however, that patterns of decrease or increase in stature associated with environmental variables are not necessarily distributed equally across skeletal elements (e.g., Boldsen 1998), and final stature will also be affected by phenomena such as catch-up growth (Bogin 1999; Ulijaszek et al. 1998). Therefore, adult height is considered to represent the cumulative effects of growth and development and regularly serves as a proxy of general, nonspecific population health, both in the present and in the skeletal remains of past populations (Auerbach 2011; Danforth 1999; Goodman and Martin 2002; Hoppa and FitzGerald 1999; Larsen 1997).

Stature, which like all osteological markers is best used with a suite of traits, has been a key variable for addressing reconstruction of health patterns in the late prehistoric Southeast. One of the most enduring questions concerns what health impacts, if any, did the emergence and intensification of agriculture have on stature - temporally and geographically (Cohen and Armelagos 1984; Cohen and Crane-Kramer 2007; Lambert 2000, 2009; Larsen 1995; Larsen et al. 2002; Mummert et al. 2011; Pinhasi and Stock 2011; Steckel and Rose 2002). For more than three decades, Southeastern bioarchaeologists have attempted to address this issue, revealing complex trends, with evidence for both declining and improving height in various farming populations (Auerbach 2011; Boyd and Boyd 1989; Cassidy 1984; Cook 1984, 2007; Danforth et al. 2007; Goodman et al. 1984; Larsen 1995; Rose et al. 1984, 1991).

As noted recently by Auerbach (201 1:206), stature is not only a common proxy for past health status but has been the only size and shape variable to be consistently applied to understanding the shift from food collecting to food production. Yet to date no direct stature estimation approach has been developed for use with prehistoric populations of the Southeast. Researchers necessarily rely on a variety of methods that were developed from contemporary, and biologically unrelated, cadaveric reference samples (Kemkes-Grottenthaler 2005).

Stature methodology thus remains a pressing concern to bioarchaeologists, including those practicing in the Southeast, and warrants investigation. Our goal here is to explore whether choice of stature estimation formula, choice of skeletal element, and /or use of partial versus whole bone can affect interpretation of nonspecific health patterns in small samples from the Southeast. Readers are referred elsewhere for broad overviews of growth and development in human populations (e.g., Bogin 1999; Eveleth and Tanner 1990; Ruff 2002; Ulijaszek et al. 1998) and for comprehensive assessments of the political economy of health for the central Tombigbee River valley using multiple osteological indicators (Danforth et al. 2007; Shuler 2009; Shuler et al. 2011). Beginning with a brief description of the stature methods in the region and a contextual overview of the samples, we apply estimation approaches to typical late prehistoric skeletal series in a heuristic case study of how methods affect interpretation - a necessary first step in hypothesis building and toward an understanding of the implications of growth among populations of the prehistoric Southeast. …

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