An Introduction to the Bioarchaeology Special Issue

by Laurie J. Reitsema & Sammantha Holder

Essays in this special issue of The Classic were first written by undergraduate students in Anthropology professor Laurie Reitsema’s Bioarchaeology 4265 course. Bioarchaeology is the study of human skeletons from archaeological contexts, and deals with thousands of years of human history and prehistory. The skeleton adapts to life’s pressures, meaning that over a lifetime, bones and teeth come to encode a great deal of information about past people’s health, lifestyles, and environments. Importantly, information we can obtain from the human skeleton is direct, not inferred through other aspects of the material record or written down by someone else, and it is individualized, meaning skeletal data illuminate a single person’s experiences, unlike archaeology and history which more often deal with groups of people. As such, bioarchaeological evidence has much to contribute toward understanding past human dynamics of all kinds, and for answering big questions about humanity.

In 2010, a survey conducted by Harvard University polled some of the world’s most influential social scientists regarding which issues or problems facing humanity are the most important and will require the most work to address. These “Hard and Important Topics in the Social Sciences,” which include such themes as world peace, humanity’s purpose, justice, and how to decide what is “good” for society, are a rallying cry for interdisciplinary and creative research in the social sciences. Beyond studying human skeletons to illuminate the past (a worthy cause!), bioarchaeology has enormous “applied” potential, in that it opens up entirely new chapters of humanity which can identify roots of modern problems, and offer new options for resolving them.

In this special issue, student authors present collections of bioarchaeologically-based essays written around an issue of critical real-world relevance. As you browse the special issue, you will encounter the following “Hard Problems” from the Harvard panel poll results: (1) How the cultural becomes biological, (2) Behavior change, (3) Persistence of ideologies and norms, (4) Democratization and international conflict, and (5) Population and sustainability.

There was an added twist for student authors. To strengthen the links between bioarchaeology and the “Hard Problems,” which are quite broad, students focused their work around major research domains in bioarchaeological research. These include body modification, enslavement, disease, colonization, and structural violence, which is psychological and physical harm caused through the impacts of social structures that systematically limit and adversely impact certain members of a population; for example, racism.

Research essays each were written individually, but collections of essays are bracketed by a brief introduction and conclusion, group written by the authors of each collection. In each collection, the essays you will encounter are written using three different styles of writing employed by bioarchaeologists. These styles include a natural science approach, focusing on evolutionary data and approaches, a social science approach, focusing on populations and behavior, and a humanities approach, focusing on rich context and conveying a sense of individualized experiences in the past. Students grappled with these different approaches as they learned first-hand about writing in the discipline.

Through these essays and essay collections, students have forged new links between bioarchaeology and real-world problems facing humanity today. As such, these are novel contributions to bioarchaeology and serve a valuable purpose in outreach and communication. In the process of achieving this result, students honed hard-earned skills in writing and communication through multiple drafts and rounds of peer review. We hope you will enjoy learning about the human past through student’s essays included in the special issue.

Prof. Laurie Reitsema
Associate Professor of Anthropology

Sammantha Holder, MA
Doctoral Candidate
Writing Intensive Program Teaching Assistant