Conférence de bioarchéologie 讲座:生物考古学

The lecture first explained that “bioarchaeologists” are physical anthropologists who study human skeletons from archaeological sites. The training to become a bioarchaeologist involves learning all the bones of the human skeleton, even when they’re broken into small pieces. The field is closely related to forensics and paleoanthropology. Also, the focus of the field is somewhat different in China and America: in China many anthropologists study race and craniometry to understand the relationships between groups and their history; in America most bioarchaeologists study how ancient people lived: their food, their diseases, and their life expectancy (for example, the beginning of agriculture, and how it impacted people’s health and diet).


Bioarchaeologists are both scientists and social scientists: we need to understand biology and medicine, but the reason we are not only biologists is because we also look at the archaeological data to interpret our results. We want to say “what significance does this diagnosis have” – that’s what makes us anthropologists.


Sometimes we work in the field on excavations, which is always the first step in our research. The second step is analysis in the lab – sometimes we start this part after the excavation is finished.


From the bones, we can estimate the sex of an individual. This is about 90% accurate with the pelvis, 80-90% accurate with the skull, and using best is both. It’s not possible to estimate the sex of children from the skeleton. We say “estimation” and not “determination” because we can never be 100% sure, unless we have DNA. Even with DNA, we cannot say what ancient people’s beliefs and attitudes were towards sex and the roles of different genders in society.


The lecture also described some of the many methods for estimating age, including using the pubic symphyseal face, the iliac auricular surface, and sternal ends of ribs. There are also histological methods, such as using the microscopic rings of cementum on the roots of teeth, like tree rings. Age estimation is easier to do for children because they grow at a regular rate, while adults age at different rates. Especially the eruption of teeth is the same for most children.

讲座还介绍了一些方法来判断年龄,包括使用耻骨联合面、髂骨耳状面与肋骨胸骨端。也有组织学方法,如使用牙根上牙骨质的微观环,像树的年轮。对孩子来说更容易判断年龄,因为孩子长得有规律,特别是牙齿萌出的时间, 大多数的孩子都是一样的。但成人以不同的速度衰退。

Teeth are a very important subject of study for bioarchaeologists and physical anthropologists. We can study tooth form and enamel thickness to figure out the diet and relationships of ancient hominin species. Teeth are also unique to each person, like fingerprints, and can be used to identify dead bodies. They are the hardest tissue in the human body, and are sometimes the best-preserved part of a body in an archaeological context, so we often use them to study a person’s diet and health.


The lecture briefly described the field of paleopathology. In paleopathology, we can study infectious diseases, metabolic diseases (nutritional deficiencies and genetic diseases), arthritis, growth and development, and trauma. In fact, very few diseases affect the bone, and not all cases of the diseases that do affect bone will have time to affect the bone.


It’s important to remember the limitations of paleopathology. We can’t look at a cemetery where 15% of the population had TB and conclude that 15% of the population had TB. It could be that 80% had TB, but only the strongest people survived into middle age and developed lesions, while the rest died young and had no skeletal lesions. Also, it’s important in all sciences to separate description from interpretation. So, in paleopathology, we first describe the appearance and location of lesions, and once the description is complete, we can try to do a differential diagnosis and identify the lesions.


When examining trauma, it’s important to distinguish between antemortem, perimortem, and postmortem damage to the bone. Sometimes trauma is a result of violence, sometimes it is an accident, and sometimes it is surgical (as in amputations and trepanations).


Finally, there are some newer, microscopic methods of studying bioarchaeology. These include using stable isotopes to reconstruct diet and migration, using histological methods to study growth, and using aDNA to study humans and identify pathogens.


One area of research in bioarchaeology that isn’t yet very big in China is the study of “identity.” From an anthropological point of view, identity is a very complicated phenomenon. It includes a person’s individual, gender, cultural, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and national identity. Fundamentally, it’s how others see us and how we see ourselves. Our identity and experiences can be reflected in our bodies, in our skeletons. A clear example is tattoos – your body says to other people “this is who I am”; ancient times people had similar practices, not just tattoos but also tooth ablation (in China) and cranial modification (in the ancient Andes mountains and parts of modern Africa). People who experience oppression also have poorer health, and this is a reflection of their identity and life experience.


The lecture then discussed craniometry. This is a well-developed area of research in China, which studies the shape of skulls to figure out how different ancient and modern groups are related. However, in the West, craniometry sometimes has a negative association with racism. In the 19th century, Western scientists tried to use craniometry to show that rich, white men were superior to other groups of people. They used science as a political weapon. Of course, we now know that their theories were wrong. Now we don’t study skull shape to figure out which race is superior to which race; this is not science because one race is not superior to another. Instead, we study cranial shape to find genetic relationships between groups. There are also better tools today for measuring skulls and better statistics for representing the relationships between groups.


Ethics in bioarchaeology is also a big question in America today. For instance, there are Indian people who have been oppressed by white people and the American government. Before, anthropologists could dig up Indians’ ancestors, even if they didn’t agree. However, for the last twenty years there has been a law saying that under many circumstances, the Indian tribes have the right to decide what is done with their ancestors’ remains. Some tribes allow the anthropologists to continue studying the skeletons (as long as they don’t do destructive analysis), and many skeletons are repatriated to the tribes and reburied. I think this is a good thing, and most American archaeologists think this is a good thing, because in the past anthropologists didn’t respect Indians’ rights, and but now the tribes have the right to decide. Also, now the relationships between archaeologists and Indian tribes is better, so there are more opportunities to cooperate with the tribes to learn about their ancestors’ way of life.

美国生物考古学家也常常考虑道德问题。例如,印第安人受到白人和美国政府的压迫。以前,人类学家可以挖出印第安人的祖先,即使他们不同意。然而,在过去的二十年里,有一项法律规定说 ,在许多情况下,印第安部落有权决定他们祖先的遗骸将如何处理。有些部落允许人类学家继续研究骨架(只要他们不做破坏性分析),而许多骨架被遣返回部落、重新埋葬。我认为这是一件好事。大多数美国考古学家认为这是一件好事,因为过去人类学家不尊重印第安人的权利,但现在他们有权决定了。而且,现在考古学家和印第安人部落之间的关系更好了,所以现在有更多的机会与部落合作,了解他们祖先的生活方式。

Finally, the lecture described two case studies. First, Richard III was a king of England: he was the last English king to die in battle, in 1485. He is also one of the most hated kings in English history. Many people believe he killed his nephews to become kings. Shakespeare also wrote a play about him, and described him as a cunning and evil man, with a hunchback.


After Richard was killed in battle, he was paraded naked through the streets and his corpse was mutilated. No one knew where he was buried; some people believed his body was thrown in the river, but others thought he was buried in a church yard. Finally, in 2012, archaeologists went to look for his body in the ancient church yard. Within two weeks, they found a skeleton that might be his.


The bioarchaeologists used many different methods to figure out if the body belonged to Richard III. He was a male of about the right age, and C14 analysis said that he died around the same time as Richard. They also found parasite eggs in the soil around his abdomen, which meant he ate a lot of meat and fish, and so was probably rich. The stable isotopes in his bones also showed that he ate a lot of protein and seafood. They did a 3D reconstruction of his face, which looked a bit like Richard. Finally, they did aDNA analysis, and found that he was indeed related to Richard III’s descendants. The examination of the skeleton also showed that he was probably Richard III. The skeleton had scoliosis, so he did have spine problems. He also had 11 perimortem blade injuries, including in places that would have been covered by his armor, so they were probably inflicted after he died and was paraded naked through the city. Finally, in 2015, he was reburied as a king.

生物考古学家用过许多不同的方法来判断该骨骼是否为理查德三世。骨骼的年龄与理查德三世相符,碳十四分析表明,他和理查德死于同一时间。学者也在他腹部周围的土壤中发现了寄生虫卵,这意味着他吃了很多肉和鱼,所以他可能很富有。他骨骼中的稳定同位素也表明他吃了大量的蛋白质和海鲜。学者对他的面部进行三维复原,结果看起来有点像理查德。最后, DNA分析发现骨骼确实跟理查德三世的后裔有关。对骨骼的检查也显示他可能是理查德三世。骨骼的脊柱侧弯,所以理查德确实有脊柱问题。骨骼还受了11次伤,其中有一些受伤的地方应该被他的盔甲所覆盖,所以它们应该是在他死后赤裸时造成的。最后,他于2015年以国王礼下葬。

More information on this case on :


The second case study discussed in the lecture was about Liz Berger’s own research into foot binding. At a Ming Dynasty cemetery in Shaanxi, she found that some women had very small metatarsals and phalanges. However, the tarsal bones were roughly normal size. Only the joint surfaces had a different size. This is very different from women in the Qing Dynasty, whose tarsal bones were very affected by foot binding. This is probably because the method of binding the feet was different in different times and places within China. It will be interesting in the future to compare skeletons from different parts of China to see how foot binding changed through time and how it affected women’s lives and bodies.


Some bioarchaeologists in action in the field (hands of Zhou Yawei) 生物考古学就工作过程中
This is Richard III 这是理查德三世 (source:

Elizabeth Berger 贝丽姿

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