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For immediate use

Feb. 6, 1998 -- No. 121

UNC-CH bioanthropologist's book looks to skeletons to flesh out truth

By Bret Johnson
UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- On a bluff overlooking the Illinois River 700 years ago, the people of a prehistoric Oneota village lived under constant threat of violence. Archaeological discovery of fortifications and weapons show the potential for violence, but victims' remains tell a more elaborate story.

Uncovered skeletons at the site reveal that 16 percent of the Oneota died violent deaths. Skeletal remains show projectile wounds, holes in skulls produced by stone pre-historic axes called celts, depressed fractures and various mutilations.

That those bones remained unhealed indicates the victims died at the scene. Though not all the violent wounds were fatal, fully a third of people studied suffered from violent attacks, men and women alike.

Bioarchaeology, a growing scientific field representing a melding of biological anthropology and archaeology, is helping create a more complete picture of the history of sites such as the Oneota village. Dr. Clark Spencer Larsen, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explores the field in his new book, “Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton.”

Bioarchaeology is an emerging discipline that emphasizes the “human biological component of the archaeological record,” Larsen said.

The 461-page work, just published by Cambridge University Press offers new options for determining the quality of life among once-living populations.

“Human skeletal and dental tissues are remarkably sensitive to the environment,” Larsen said.

From human tissues it is possible to determine the dietary habits of the subjects. Individuals who were poorly nourished had flatter pelvises. People suffering from iron deficiency had tell-tale lesions on their skulls.

Disease often is evident when studying human remains.

“Several chronic infectious diseases affect bone tissues in patterned ways,” Larsen said. “The study of bone lesions documenting disease provides important perspectives on health in earlier societies.”

Larsen discusses physiological stress, exposure to disease, injury and violence, physical activity, dietary and non-dietary use of the face and jaws, dietary reconstruction, nutrition and population history.

The book gives several individual examples of uses for bioarchaeology, but Larsen looks at populations and not individuals in interpreting his findings.

“The population approach is critical for characterizing patterns of behavior,” he said. “The enormous potential of bioarchaeology for understanding the past has only recently become realized.”

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Note: Larsen can be reached at (919) 962-3844.

Contact: David Williamson, Bret Johnson.