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15.1: Bioarchaeology

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    In 2010 Hurricane Earl reached the Caribbean Island of Antigua. The storm brought strong winds and heavy rainfall to the island. After the storm calmed, accumulated water drained back out to the ocean, carving a channel through one of the beaches at English Harbor as it went. Out of the newly created channel, human bones were exposed. Although they had been buried for many years, the remains belonged to 18thcentury British sailors who had died from Yellow Fever while stationed in the Caribbean. While no headstones were present to divulge information about each person buried on the beach, a large amount of evidence was still accessible through the analysis of each skeleton as well as the information garnered from the burial context. To gather more information about each of the individuals buried on the beach, the bones were examined, and a detailed analysis was carried out of the positions of the skeletons, the burial depth, whether clothing material such as buttons were found with each set of remains, and whether it appeared that the sailors were buried in coffins. In addition, the sex, age, and other individualizing characteristics were estimated through careful analysis of the bones themselves.

    The remains uncovered by Hurricane Earl in Antigua became part of a bioarchaeological study. Bioarchaeology is the study of human remains excavated from archaeological sites. Bioarchaeologists glean information about each set of human remains by examining the skeleton and by considering the archaeological context in which the skeleton was recovered. Through this type of detailed skeletal analysis, bioarchaeologists obtain information about each individual skeleton, which can include age, sex, height, ancestry, disease, diet, and behavior. For a broader understanding of past peoples, bioarchaeologists look at skeletal trends on a population level. They gather data on groups of individuals to reveal both biological and cultural patterns within and between samples. In this way, bioarchaeological samples can contribute to our knowledge of the demographics and lifeways of past populations.

    In the example of the buried remains on the beach in Antigua, Dr. Matthew Brown, a bioarchaeologist, examined the historic remains individually and then was able to combine the information from each individual to discern patterns within the entire sample of burials. For example, all of the skeletons belonged to males, not surprising considering that the beach was a burial site for British sailors. Dr. Brown also discovered that not all of the sailors were buried in the same manner. During the excavation, degraded wood fragments and rusted nails were uncovered in some of the burials. The wood and metal materials were consistent with those used to make coffins, leading him to suspect some of the sailors were buried in coffins. In other instances, no wood or nails were found but, instead, the bodies were positioned with their arms and legs tucked in close to the torso, with their hands positioned tightly together in the area of the pelvis. This was likely indicative of a hammock burial. A hammock burial would have served as a relatively easy way to inter a sailor who died in his hammock on board the ship. The hammock could be removed from the ship, carried onto the beach, and placed in a grave with minimal effort.

    Bioarchaeologists like Dr. Brown help us understand information about past populations and the degree of social complexity found within each society. This information can help determine what types of food were consumed and how consumption patterns changed over time in one area. Or it may help us ascertain the scale of interpersonal violence that occurred during culture contact. Other research questions that bioarchaeology addresses revolve around physiological stress from disease or from malnutrition, daily activity, injuries, or growth patterns of individuals.


    In this short clip, an excerpt from the BBC documentary Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth-Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered (2013), Dr. Brown discusses the excavation of a skeleton of a British sailor:

    This page titled 15.1: Bioarchaeology is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Beth Shook, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, & Lara Braff, Eds. (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.