Individual vs. Population Identity in Bioarchaeology

Traditionally when bioarchaeologists are discussing trends in disease or burial patterns, while it may be based on individuals, it is spoken about at the population level. We assess the way that culture and biology shape populations. Human remains are lumped together to look for statistical clusters that may reveal insight into behavior and lifestyle in the past. This group focus is not because it provides the best perspective necessarily, but because the analytical methods work best at this level. However, the approach of looking at individual life histories is becoming more common as techniques for assessing individual variation improve. Zvelebil and Weber (2012) argue that a more individual centered approach to bioarchaeology is now possible due to the advances in techniques and should be adopted. They propose that changing the focus to individual life histories not only changes the way we perceive the past, but changes our conceptions of culture and of what can be discovered in the archaeological record.

Population of Remains from Paris Catacombs, Flickr User Andydr

Zvelebil and Weber (2012) propose a method that examines the cultural and biological conditions of a discrete group of individuals. They argue that nitrogen and carbon isotope techniques can reveal information on diet, subsistence, mobility, migration, social differentiation and kinship. Strontium isotope analysis can provide data on migration and give insight into group formation. DNA can be used to track both female (mtDNA) and male (Y chromosome) genetic lines. Cultural information can be gleaned from analyzing the cemetery or burial location, looking at the mortuary program and associated grave goods for insight into social organization, ideology, and views on death. Analysis of the human remains for disease, living conditions and muscular stress patterns can reveal detailed information about lifestyle and life course. Paleopathology has especially improved with genetic analysis, allowing for diseases that don’t imprint on the bone to be recovered.

They argue that the improvement in techniques over the last decade allows for individual life histories to be created, which in turn makes for better interpretations of past behavior. By adopting a scientific-evolutionary approach, one can use these advances in the best interpretive way. The emphasis of this approach is on the cultural and biological strategies of individuals. Two important theoretical strands within this approach are human behavioral ecology, which examines population adaptation as strategies pursued by individuals, and cultural transmission theory, which looks at how cultural knowledge and skills are acquired through social learning. While these two theories are traditional used at a population level, Zvelebil and Weber (2012) argue they would have greater utility and interpretative power if used in conjunction with individual life histories. They propose that by understanding the unique individuals within the larger social system we can better understand the structure of the system itself, and therefore made more nuanced interpretations of the past. The argument is especially poignant when they quote Ernst Mayr, a biological statistician, who notes that “Averages are merely statistical abstractions, only the individuals of which the populations are composed, have reality”.

Individual Skull from Paris Catacombs, From Flickr User Andrydr

Most studies of individuals have focused on those which are idiosyncratic, due to either unique burial conditions or a lack of contextual information. While often intriguing cases, these do not help the general construction of knowledge about behavior and culture in the past. However, Zvelebil and Weber (2012) argue for individual analysis as a means to construct more appropriate profiles of populations. Every human is unique, in the variety of social persona they adopt, the health changes throughout their life, and the mortuary choices their family makes for them at death. The question is whether an individual focused approach will really allow for more accurate understanding of the past or if it will be a drain on the time of osteoarchaeologists. While I do see the merit of doing individual based studies, I wonder whether the depth  required is necessary for all studies. One question is how much individuality is preserved in the mortuary site and the human remains. In some cases the individuality expressed in life may not be represented by the deceased due to strict control over mortuary practices. The other question is, how does this vary from the average study of a mortuary site and human remains? How do we operationalize a life history of individuals in archaeology?

While the rest of the special issue from Journal of Anthropological Archaeology is not yet published, it seems that in the near future we will see how this perspective is actually used in bioarchaeology. Personally I’d like to see a comparison of a life history of individuals approach versus the more traditional, to see what types of information are recovered and how much they vary.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgZvelebil, M., & Weber, A. (2012). Human bioarchaeology: Group identity and individual life histories – Introduction Journal of Anthropological Archaeology DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.01.003

One response to “Individual vs. Population Identity in Bioarchaeology

  1. Hey, I just wanted to let you know that when one types in “Bioarchaeological Theory” this page is number one on the google search list.

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