Introduction to Anthropology series of articles

This blog will serve as an introduction to anthropology and the beginnings of a series of how the principles and methods of anthropology can be applied to other areas besides the cultural, social and human aspects of archaeology.

Anthropology as a discipline is concerned with human diversity. In its most inclusive conception, this is what brings together the four fields of cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Within the field of anthropology the areas of study it comes under specialisations depending on the country it is in. There are differences in approaches to anthropology between America and Europe. In Europe, there are differences in approach and methods between the UK and the continent and then differences between the mainland countries. In general, these differences are of little importance outside universities but it is vital to understand these approaches when carrying out research. Further information can be found online. Also, to note it the same with archaeology. Within UK  universities archaeology is now often placed in science departments but in the USA archaeology is often placed within humanities  And again in Europe where it is placed again varies though in general, they either follow the UK as science led or the USA as humanities led.

This blog will focus on the area I specialised on which is biological anthropology and within that specialising the area of human skeletal analysis which also comes under the area of osteology which can come under biological anthropology but also be a separate discipline in its own right.

The other blog posts in this series will examine applying the discipline of anthropology to cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and online communities.


Biological anthropology is concerned with the origin, evolution and diversity of humankind. The field was called physical anthropology until the late twentieth century, reflecting the field’s primary concern with cataloguing anatomical differences among human and primate groups. Under the name of biological anthropology, it is an ever-broadening field that encompasses the study of: human biological variation; evolutionary theory; human origins and evolution; early human migration; human ecology; the evolution of human behaviour  paleoanthropology; anatomy; locomotion; osteology (the study of skeletal material); dental anthropology; forensics; medical anthropology or pathology, including the patterns and history of disease; primatology (the study of non-human primates); growth, development and nutrition; and other related fields.

These areas of study can be used to answer questions about the past and present of people, their cultures and their society. Through historical and archaeological material these means examine the human burials, the human remains themselves, grave goods and their context within the wider historical landscape they would have lived in. When applied to the present these fields are used in ethnography, the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences. Also, the discipline of Forensics and investigation work, which has been popularised by the novels of Kathy Reichs and the tv series Bones. Beyond police work, anthropologists have been called to work in helping to investigate work crimes by examining mass graves and aiding in victim identification  Bosnia and more recently Iraq are countries where the work of anthropologist have been called upon.

Human Skeletal Analysis / Osteology

Human Skeletal Analysis (HSA) is the biological profiling of skeletal remains. This involves a range of skeletal biology techniques used to estimate age-at-death, biological sex, stature, and bone functional adaptation. Also, knowledge of development, form, and function of human hard tissues (bones and teeth) is vital for understanding the data being collected. Often HSA is taught as a disciple within biological anthropology and osteology, with osteology being a specialised area of HSA. This is what allows it to be a discipline with anthropology but also be separate to it since and anthropologist will have knowledge of osteology and vice-versa.

Human osteology is the science that deals with human skeleton recovery and interpretation. Osteological work is often aimed at the identification of the relatively recently deceased and is usually done in a legal context. This work pertains to the public forum is called forensic osteology, a division of forensic anthropology. The other two contexts in which osteological knowledge is commonly applied are historical. The context can be paleontological as for example the Pliocene pre-cultural hominids of Africa. Alternatively as part of an archaeological record. The goal of forensic osteology often involves the identification of an unknown individual. The forensic osteologist ascertains whether the remains are human and then begins to explore the individual characteristics, such as age, sex, and stature comparing these variables in the hopes of obtaining an exclusive match with the missing individual. When identifying the side of any unidentified skeletal element, osteologists establish three axes in space: top to bottom, side to side, and front to back.

To end this blog I briefly describe the work of HSA as if carried out on an adult human skeleton. This is only an overview it possible to go into far more detail. There are slight differences in approach for remains the of children, teenagers and infants.

Process: Inventory is first carried out of the human remains being examined. Record which bones are present or missing and the condition of the bones. Any points of interest for further examination.

Note any pathology (diseases, injury/trauma) which shows on the human remains. Any markings and features on the bones which can include cut marks, prominent muscle attachment points.

Measurements of the major bones will be recorded. If enough time is available ideally you would take measurements of every single bone that is available  Though there is a particular focus on the long bones, Skull and Pelvis. For measurements to be precise it requires that the bones are whole and in a well-preserved state though often you try to take measurements as best as you can up to a point.

Age Assessment. Firstly, done through examination of the development of the skeleton from birth to adulthood. A persons skeleton changes throughout child, puberty then into adulthood  This can be used to determine age fairly accurately up-to about the Late-teens to Mid-twenties  Then in general age assessment is then based on the wear and degradation of the bones throughout a person's life. Though the older an individual is the greater the age range becomes. Teeth can be used but they are affected by diet. The more gritty a persons food is the quicker the enamel erodes away. Also, any disease that affected the mouth and teeth will also cause them to age faster than an individual who doesn't have a gritty diet and good dental hygiene. The Pelvis and the Skull are also key areas to determine age though they do rely on you to know the biological sex of the individual. Finally, pathologies such as osteoarthritis are key indicators of age since they can indicate a minimum age a person is likely to be which can often narrow the broad range that age assessment can indicate. It should be noted there is no upper limit for age assessment. Once an individual is assessed to above 60 their age at death is very difficult to narrow down.

Biological sex. Not gender. (combination of social, cultural and self-identity). This is a key distinction to remember. In general, the majority of anthropologists are happy with biological sex and gender being two separate areas. This is because we cannot and shouldn't impose our own views of gender on a person from the past. We cannot know how they chose to identify as. Biological sex involves the Skull, Pelvis, Humeral and Femoral heads by relying on the sexual dimorphism between male and female. For example, the pelvis in females is adapted to allow babies to pass through the birth canal while a male pelvis is not. This leads to differences in the morphology (shape and size) of different parts of the pelvis. More detailed information can be found online. Though it is not a black and white area (which the tv series Bones glosses over). There is a  scale or spectrum when determining sex. Some features are indicative of being more female while others are likely to be male. But there is a middle ground where it is unknown. Also, the morphology of human skeleton changes over a person lifetime. For example, the skull while can clear distinctions between the sexes when they are a young adult. When a woman goes through the menopause her skull can look more like that of a male. The only sure way to determine sex is to use ancient DNA analysis. But this requires well-presevered bone tissue and is a destructive, therefore, requires a very good reason for it to be carried out.

Stature. Determined through measurements of a person's long bones. Femur and tibia are preferred. Though the humerus can also be used. If you have a complete and well-preserved skeleton it is possible to use all the bones that contribute to person height. This includes the Skull, spine, pelvis, long bones of the leg and finally the bones of the feet. There are different formulas for estimating the height of an individual depending on which measurements you have available. If biological sex was unclear or couldn't be determined you would use the formula for male and female then show the average range of height they might have been. The formula for stature is based on ancestry. For example, European, African, Asian all have slight variations in the formula for stature.


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