Bioarchaeology at PPA and AAPA 2011

As my previous posts intimated, this past week I have been at the Paleopathology Association and American Association of Physical Anthropologists national conferences. Over the 5 days, there have been a wide range of posters and presentations discussing new methods and collections from a variety of locations. The following is a brief overview of the conference and some of its highlights.

In the Paleopathology sessions, there were a number of intriguing presentations. Matos examined the use of rhinomaxillary changes in diagnosing leprosy. These changes occuring in the nasal area are one of the primary indicators of the disease in antiquity, but have not been thoroughly examined. He compared archaeological samples against clinical studies, and found no evidence of nasal changes in the modern one. This presentation is a good lesson for those of us involved in diagnosing disease in the past. We need to be careful that the indicators we are using are really representative of the disease and not some other process. Comparison of single diagnostic features against modern clinical trials is a good start to avoid misdiagnosis (although there does need to be caution taken when comparing modern against historic). Presentations done by Spencer and Drew examined single types of injuries, the former looking at depression fractures at Schild and the latter looking at hip fractures from the Mary Rose. By more carefully looking at the population and using new technology, they were able to come to better conclusions regarding the collections than prior studies.

One study in particular that I found fascinating due to its multidisciplinary approach was Wentz’s analysis of medicine in prehistoric Florida at the Windover site. She used archaebotanical evidence (pollen, microbotanical remnants, other floral microorganic pieces) from a mortuary pond in order to determine whether these plants were related to medical conditions. She compared the floral samples against ethnobotanical studies in order to determine their uses in medicine, and then compared these against the skeletal remains that they were found with. This was combined with artifacts that were potentially medical such as splints and bird bone tubes. She found a high number of grape seeds, used as anti-inflammatory, in individuals that had spinal and joint problems. While there are questions as to whether modern ethnographic information regarding flora use can be used, and the actual association of the botanical remains to the skeleton, the study itself was fascinating.

Another interesting comparison was done by Rose regarding skeletal remains at Amarna from 1352 to 1336 BCE, during the reign of Akhenaten. Rose compared skeletal trauma in the scapula of pigs and humans. There was a common pattern of small oval wounds in the body of scapula, and all were non-fatal minor wounds. Iconography shows that the pig wounds were due to punishment for bad behavior, spearing them in the shoulder to keep them in line. While some had argued that this spearing, found in the Book of the Dead, was due to ritual bleeding, Rose argues that it was merely a way of keeping the pigs under control. There were 110 human individuals with this same pattern of wound. Rose argues that this may mean that they were of a lower status and were being punished for behavior, like the pigs. This study is fascinating in that like the medicinal study by Wentz, it pulled together seemingly disparate lines of evidence- faunal and human- in order to come to a conlcusion.

There were a number of interesting talks in Paleopathology in the late afternoon session regarding the future of the discipline as a whole and challenges to be faced in the future. Roberts brilliantly argued for the need for an international digital database to more easily locate skeletal collections. Lynnerup discussed the problems with doing ‘celebrity’ bioarchaeology faced when his team excavated and studied the remains of Tcho Brae. Gill-Frerking presented on the challenges of creating museum exhibits and communicating our work in a scientific way to a wide range of ages and education levels. The Paleopathology meeting was overall extremely informative and as always, it was nice to be surrounded by people who you can openly discuss things such as rickets, infant remains, or tuberculosis without causing people to stare.

At the Physical Anthropology meeting my primary interest was in presenting my own poster and the session on the use of databases. I won’t get on my need for digital databases soap box right now (luckily I’ve got the CHI blog for that), but instead will discuss some of the interesting posters that were at the meeting (since that is where I spent most of my time). Geber’s poster on the Great Irish Famine was visually one of the most fascinating posters due to its layout as an old fashioned newpaper, but it was also the one that most captured my interest. Geber used skeletal remains from the Kilkenny Union Workhouse in Ireland in order to look at the bioarchaeology of the Irish famine. He found that the remains conformed with historical accounts of severe stress, high death rate among working individuals, and the high percentage of scurvy due to a lack of vitamin D which normally would have been procured from potatoes. What I most appreciated about this poster was the inclusion of context and the historical background to better understand the skeletal collection.Some other interesting posters included Crist and Crist’s analysis of juvenile remains from a Philadelphia workhouse which showed evidence of being used for anatomy classes, an overview of Roman health from a British collection by Llyod, and an analysis of early hominid appearances of yaws by Dolan.

What was the most important bioarchaeological aspect of the entire conference was Jane Buisktra’s talk at the Friday luncheon on the future of bioarchaeology. She briefly reviewed the history of bioarchaeology, from its earliest days, through the advances in science brought on by processual, and the integration of social factors from post-processualism. Then, Buikstra discussed the challenges that we face in the future. The need for better bridging arguments was addressed, arguing that we need to connect our method to theories in more productive ways and avoid imposing our Western biases onto the past. She argued that we need to share our data more openly if we want to advance the field, done by putting our methods and raw data clearly into our reports and analyses. Bioarchaeologists are “giving voice to those long silent” argued Buikstra. We need to continue the work we are doing, and use our discipline to test potentially biased historical beliefs, educate others on the realities and variation in the past, and to collaborate with the community.

Sadly this year I missed the two primary bioarchaeology sessions due to a combination of presenting my own poster, volunteering, and having a horrible flight schedule. If anyone has summaries from the Bioarchaeology sessions from Thursday or Saturday morning, you can add them as a comment or email me with them and I will add them to the post!

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