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How Bioarchaeology Works


The Bones of Bioarchaeology
Bones and other human remains are often the most important evidence for the theories that bioarchaeologists construct.
Bones and other human remains are often the most important evidence for the theories that bioarchaeologists construct.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

It would be easy to get swept up in the broad intellectual scope of bioarchaeology, but what it all comes down to is this -- the bones. Human bodies are notoriously fragile in the face of decomposition. When we die, our flesh quickly degrades due to environmental conditions and microbes that feed on our remains.

For the most part, our hard, durable skeletons are all that's left of us, and even those begin to break down over time. So bones, in essence, become centerpieces of evidence as bioarchaeologists work to unravel mysteries about ancient peoples.

Some places are better than others for unearthing bones. Bioarchaeologists work all over the planet, but they often prefer parts of the world where human remains are best preserved. Corpses that wind up in very dry or very cold or airless locations may last for centuries with relatively little decay. The arid areas of the southwestern United States, Andean South America, Egypt, and frigid parts of Europe are hot spots for bioarchaeology because many human remains can be found there in relatively good condition [source: Turner].

Dr. Bethany Turner, assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Ga., says that choosing bioarchaeological research locations isn't just weather-related.

"Some of these areas are also popular because there is already a lot of rich archaeological knowledge about them, which can help bioarchaeologists structure more in-depth hypotheses and ask questions with their research that are grounded in historical context."

In these well-established locations, scientists can easily share knowledge and develop their theories about past peoples. With plentiful bones as the basis for their ideas, researchers can forge ideas about how human populations developed, thrived and suffered, and overcame or succumbed to environmental or social upheaval.

No matter where on the planet the research takes place, uncovering the stories that bones have to tell is painstaking work. Sometimes those skeletal stories convey details that no one, not even the scientists, could have imagined.