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How Bioarchaeology Works


The Proletariat Strikes Back
History always recognizes kings and pharaohs, but often omits the masses. In their versions of history, bioarchaeologists strive to include people of all social strata.
History always recognizes kings and pharaohs, but often omits the masses. In their versions of history, bioarchaeologists strive to include people of all social strata.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

It's often said that historians write history -- and frequently, historians fixate on rich and famous people. But this kind of perspective doesn't tell much of the real story of ancient cultures and societies.

Anthropology professor Turner says that's why bioarchaeology is so important -- it attempts to show more of the reality behind our past.

"Bioarchaeology explicitly operates from the bottom-up, looking at the masses of people who weren't always included in historical writings or iconographic images. We are fascinated by the lives of everyone at every tier of a society, so we bring to the table a much richer and more inclusive perspective on both ancient and historical peoples."

Turner adds that bioarchaeologists also study historically marginalized groups within these ancient contexts. For example, researchers may focus on women, prisoners of war or people from a lower socioeconomic class, so that their places in history are better understood.

More expansively, this research clarifies the experiences of our ancestors over a wide range of time periods and geographic regions. We also better comprehend nutrition and diseases in historical context, see insights into population growth and population movement, and discern declines in human numbers due to disease or conflict.

Those kinds of details and stories are relevant to contemporary people. "By understanding earlier societies, we are better equipped to understand modern ones as well," adds Turner. By unearthing new knowledge, bioarchaeologists not only establish a better understanding of what happened to ancient peoples, they ultimately create a clearer picture of what exactly makes us human.