Archive | April, 2011

Skeletal Series Part 4: The Human Spine

30 Apr

As we started with the skull in this series of posts, we shall continue with the axial skeleton, and discuss the vertebral column (or spine) in the human skeleton.  The human spine consists of vertebrae that help support the back muscles, protect the spinal column, and provides the rod function for the axial skeleton (Mays 1999).  We’ll firstly discuss the moveable vertebrae, then move onto the hyoid, sacrum and coccyx elements.

On a personal note, I have difficulty with identifying vertebrae and reconfiguring them in the right order.  This is something I’m hoping to improve soon!  Meantime, here is a short guide…

As the basic excavation methods have already been discussed in the previous post, we will miss them out here.  Once again, care should be taken with handling, and it is unlikely all the elements would survive.  The hyoid bone is particularly liable to be missing or broken as it is a fairly small and fragile bone (Larsen 1997).

Vertebrae Anatomy, Terminology and Elements

The human spine consists of 33 vertebrae in total; 24 are considered to be part of the upper spine, whilst the other 11 are found in the Sacrum & Coccyx (discussed below).  The 24 vertebrae can be split into three separate groups based on morphology, spinal curvature and position; those of the Cervical, Thoracic & Lumbar vertebrae (White & Folkens 2005).  The vertebrae are often referred to by their first distinction, and by the number in that area.  So the second cervical vertebrae is referred to as the C2 etc.

The main bone landmark features of a typical vertebra are presented in the diagram below.  Please note that there are variations depending on the class of vertebrae under discussion.

Typical bone landmarks found on vertebrae and anatomical information (Eckalbar et al 2012. Scoliosis and Segmentation Defects of The Vertebrae. Developmental Biology. 1 (3): 402.)

The vertebrae in these groups are typically found as below (proximal to distal):

Cervical: 7 Vertebrae present.  The normal cervical vertebrae include interlocking vertebral bodies, with saddle shaped superior and inferior surfaces; alongside this the canal (see below) is triangular and of a similar size to the vertebral body (Mays 1999).  The spinous process are shorter than in thoracic and not as massive as lumbar vertebrae processes (White & Folkens 2005: 163).

Thoracic: 12 Vertebrae present.  The elements in this section of spine again increase in body size (vertebral body).  Each thoracic element articulates with a pair of ribs in the human skeleton.  It has been noted that ‘upper thoracic bodies are roughly triangular in a superior outline whilst the lower thoracic vertebral bodies are more circular’ (White & Folkens 2005: 170).  The vertebrae canal (or arch which the spinal column runs through posteriorly) are smaller relative to the vertebral body, and importantly, more circular than in cervical vertebrae (Waldron 2009).

Lumbar: 5 Vertebrae present.   Finally the vertebral bodies of the lumbar vertebrae once again increase in size from superior to inferior (as all vertebrae do).  They are the largest of all the unfused vertebrae, and should be easily identifiable by their size and features (larger spinous process, vertebral bodies, & smaller transverse process and lumbar arches) (White & Folkens 2005: 178).

It must be remembered that due to variation, an added or missing vertebra, is a possibility.  Between the individual vertebrae bones are intervetebral discs present.  In life, they help to provide movement between bones and act as ligaments.

Cervical, Thoracic & Lumbar Vertebrae & Anatomical Features.

As discussed above, there are three vertebrae types, as seen in the diagram above and below.  Important changes in the morphology and shape of these elements can be noted, thus each part can be ascertained to the differing thirds of the spine (White & Folkens 2005).  As it can be seen from the diagram below, the thoracic & lumbar vertebrae have a much more developed Vertebral Body (cementum in other animals), alongside a much more elongated Spinous Process.

Differences In Body Shape for Cervical (C4), Thoracic (T6) & Lumbar (L2) Vertebrae.

Distinctive Elements

The Atlas and Axis Vertebrae (diagram below), the first and second cervical vertebrae, are the most distinctive in terms of size and morphology.  The Atlas bone (C1) lies between the cranium (connecting with the condyles of the occipital bone) and the Axis  vertebrae (C2).  The atlas lacks a ‘vertebral body, a spinous process and has no articular disks either superior or inferior to it’ (White & Folkens 2005: 163).  The Axis bone also lacks a typical vertebral body.  It’s most distinctive feature is the odontoid peg, as seen in the diagram below.  This allows the head to rotate, moving the atlas about the odontoid peg of the axis bone (White & Folkens 2005: 169).

Features Of The Atlas (C1) & (C2) Axis Vertebrae

Transitional vertebrae include the sixth cervical vertebrae, which has a larger cementum (body) and a spinous process resembling a thoracic vertebrae.  The twelfth thoracic vertebrae resembles the eleventh vertebrae but the inferior articular facets assume the lumbar pattern rather than the typical thoracic pattern (White & Folkens 2005: 170).

The Hyoid bone (diagram below) is the located in the neck, immediately above the Adams apple on the anterior surface of the neck.  it is the only bone in the human body that does not articulate with any other bone whatsoever.  It consists of the body, the lesser horns and greater horns, as can be discerned in the diagram below (White & Folkens 2005: 155).  Unfortunately, it is often broken (fractured) during strangulation, and can be used as key indicator in murder cases.

Details of The Hyoid Bone

The Sacrum (diagram below) consists of five fused vertebrae in a wedge like shape at the bottom of the vertebral column.  These fuse in adolescents, and can consists of between four to six segments, although five is the normal average.  To both lateral sides are the pelvic bones (Os Coxa), whilst inferiorly lies the coccyx.

The Coccyx (diagram below) articulates distally to the Sacrum, and consists of 3 to 5 fused elements (variation is common).  It is the vestigial tail, and highly variable in shape.  In later life, the Coccyx may fuse to the Sacrum.  As with the above bone, the coccyx decreases in size inferiorly (White & Folkens 2005: 245).

Sacrum Terminology

Discussion of Osteoarthritis

As biped hominids, homo sapiens are at the mercy of numerous back problems.  The wear and tear, stresses and strains, that the vertebrae have to take are often manifested through various disease & maladies (Jurmain et al 2010).  Specifically, there is an increased susceptibility  in spinal joint disease.  Osteoarthritis is one such example, (OA) presenting in vertebrae that often occurs as a direct response to spinal stress (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 139).  The spine is recognised as ‘exhibiting a backward curve in the chest or thoracic region and a forward curve in the lumbar and cervical regions’; which lead to the C5, T8 & L4 vertebrae as being the most affected by joint disease (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 139).

These points are the areas of maximum and minimum stress, and this is seen as the variation in the frequency of OA in the spinal column.  As Waldron (2009: 27-30) states, ‘osteoarthritis is primarily a disease of the articular cartilage which breaks down as the disease progresses’.  The incipient factor is the enzymatic breakdown of the cartilage matrix, and affects the bone in the following ways.

The five main steps are outlined below:

1.  ‘Formation of new bone (after mixed signals from enzymes) around the margins of the joint; often called marginal ostephytes.

2.  Formation of new bone on the joint surface due to the vascularisation of the subchondral bone.

3. Pitting on the joint surface manifested as a series of holes on the joint surface.

4.  Changes in the normal contour of the joint, often widening and flattening of he contour.

5.  The production of eburnation, a highly polished area on the joint surface, usually sharply demarcated from the non-eburnated surface.  This area is sometimes grooved towards the motion and direction of the joint; presumably due to debris or crystals between the two articulating surfaces’ (Waldron 2009: 27-29).

Eburnation On The ‘Peg’ of the Axis Vertebrae (Shiny & Smooth Wearing)

Factors that are known to be important as precipitates to OA include age, race, sex, genetics, obesity, trauma and most importantly, movement itself.  Age is particularly important, as at the older standard range of human health there is scarcely anyone left with normal joints (Roberts & Manchester 2010, Waldron 2009).  An example of OA occurring in populations will now be discussed.  Lovell (1994) discuss a site in Pakistan, dating from 4000-5000 years ago (Bronze Age), where a pattern of OA was seen in the population.  The disease was noted as mechanical in nature (as normal), but focused on the cervical vertebrae.  This may be a reflection of activity in which the people carried heavy loads upon their heads (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 141).

The excavation of medieval rural site of Wharram Percy, in North Yorkshire, uncovered a large series population (May 1999).  Examination of features on the spinal column indicate OA was prevalent in the population at around 55 per cent for males and 39 per cent for females.  Because the site was rural in nature, and had indication of being used as an agricultural centre, it was identified that this population had developed OA through their lifestyle choices (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 143).  Useful as these sites, and features are, it should be reminded that ‘spinal joint disease was not the ideal part of the skeleton to observe as a marker of activity-related stress’ (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 143).


Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. Stroud: The History Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Skeletal Series Part 3: The Human Skull

22 Apr

In this post I will be discussing the basics of the human skull; its anatomical features, number of elements, terminology, key functions and how to handle a skull.  Alongside the earlier blog on variations in human skeleton and the ethics that should be considered, this should prepare the user for interaction and identification of physical remains.

A skull in situ. From the Gadot archaeological site in Israel.

Individual elements found in the human skull, individual elements discussed below (Pearson Education 2000).

 The human skull is one of the most complex structures in the human skeleton.  It houses the foundations for the sense of smell, sight, taste & hearing, alongside the housing of the brain.  It also provides the framework for the first processes of digestion by mastication of food with the use of the teeth anchored in mandible and maxilla bones (White & Folkens 2005: 75).  White & Folkens (2005) go on to note that it is of value that the key anatomical landmarks of the skull are noted.  These include the Orbits of the eye sockets, the Anterior Nasal Aperture (nose hole), External Auditory Meati (ear canals), the Zygomatic Arches (cheek bones) along with the Foramen Magnum (base of the skull).  It is by these landmarks that we can orientate the skeletal elements if they are disarticulated or have been broken (White & Folkens 2005: 75).


Particular care should be taken when excavating the skull, or any human skeletal element.  Careful consideration should be made of its location, burial type, any nearby skeletons, and of course any different stratigraphic (colour/cut/fill) features present should be noted (Mays 1999).  As this is the only chance to lift the skeleton since deposition, careful notes should be made on first impression and any post depositional changes that can be immediately identified.  Careful sieving of the soil matrix around the skull should take place, to help retain any small fragments of bone or lose teeth (whole and partial fragments) (Mays 1999).  Differential preservation, dependent on deposition & burial environment conditions, will mean that it is likely sections of the skull will not survive.  These are often the small, delicate bones located inside the cranial-facial portion of the skull.  The likeliest to survive portions are the mandible and the cranial plate elements because of their tough biological nature.


When handling the skull it should be noted of the above major landmarks.  For example, you will not damage the skull whilst carefully holding it in both your hands but if you hold it by the orbits you are liable to damage the surrounding bone.  The foramen magnum is usually stable and strong it to withstand creeping fingers as a hold place.  Whilst studying the skull on a desk, a padded surface should be provided for it to rest upon.  Care should be taken when handling the mandible, and temptation should be resisted in testing the mechanical properties of the surrounding bone (Mays 1999).

Anatomical Planes

For use between comparative material, it is useful to use a standardized set of viewing planes.  The human skull is often viewed via the Frankfurt Horizontal (White & Folkens 2005).  The FH is a plane of three osteometric points conceived in 1884 (see above link).  The skull is normally viewed from six standard perspectives.  These include norma verticalis (viewed from above), norma lateralis (viewed from either side), norma occipitalis (viewed from behind), norma basilaris (viewed from underneath) and norma frontalis (viewed from the front). Thus, when considered with osteometric points, measurements can be taken and compared and contrasted (White & Folkens 2005: 86).

Cranial Terminology and Elements

  1. The Skull refers to the entire framework including the lower jaw.
  2. The Mandible is the lower jaw.
  3. The Cranium is the skull without the mandible.
  4. The Calvaria is the cranium without the face portion.
  5. The Calotte is the calvaria without the base of the skull.
  6. The Splanchnocranium is the facial skeleton.
  7. The Neurocranium is the braincase.

The skull in infants is made up of 45 separate elements but as an adult it is normally made up of 28 elements (including the ear ossicles) (White & Folkens 2005: 77).  The Hyoid bone (the ‘voice box’ bone) is generally not included in the count of skull bones.  The identification of the elements can be made hard as idiosyncratic differences, and fusion between plates of the cranium, can lead to differences.  A number of elements in the human skull are paired elements; simply that they are part of two identical bones in the skull.  Alongside this there are also separate elements.  The list is below-

Paired Elements

  1.  Parietal bones- Located form the side and roof of the cranial vault.
  2. Temporal bones- Located laterally and house the Exterior and Interior Auditory Meatus.  They also include the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ for short), the
  3. Auditory Ossicles– The malleus, incus and stapes (6 bones altogether) are located in both of the ears, very near the temporal bones (Very often never recovered in archaeological samples).
  4. Maxillae bones- Located proximal to the mandile, houses the upper jaw.
  5. Palatine bones- Located inside the mouth and forms the hard palate and part of the nasal cavity.
  6. Inferior Nasal Conchae bones- Located laterally inside the nasal cavity.
  7. Lacrimal bones- Located medially in the orbits.
  8. Nasal bones- Located distally to the frontal bone, helping to form the upper nose.
  9. Zygomatic bones- They are the cheekbones.

‘Norma Lateralis’ view of the human skull (Pearson Education 2000).

Single Elements

  1. Frontal bone- Located anterior, it is the brow of the skull.
  2. Occipital bone- Located to the rear of the skull, houses the Foramen Magnum.
  3. Vomer bone- Located in the splanchnocranium, and divides the nasal cavity.
  4. Ethmoid bone- A light and spongy bone located between the orbits.
  5. Sphenoid bone- Located inside the front of the splanchnocranium, a very complex bone.
  6. Mandible bone- The lower jaw.

‘Norma Frontalis’ view of the human skull, note the large orbits (Pearson Education 2000).

‘Norma Basilaris’ view of the human skull, note the foramen magnum where the spinal chord enters the skulls to connect with the brain (Pearson Education 2000).

‘Intracranial Superior’ view of the human skull, again note the foramen magnum where the spinal chord enters the skull to join the brain and the thickness of the outer and inner cortical bones of the skull (Pearson Education 2000).

General Discussion

The human skull is a complex part of the body.  It is key in identification of sex by the size of the Mastoid Process, Supraorbital Torus, tooth size, and the squareness of the mandible amongst others; it can also be used in describing age at death by tooth wear, Cranial Suture closure and general porosity of the bone (Roberts & Manchester 2010, White & Folkens 2005, Jurmain et al 2011).  A later post will detail exactly how in further detail.

It has also changed as our species, Homo Sapiens, evolved from earlier hominids.  The morphology of the human skull has certainly become more gracile, and as an indicator and outcome of the agricultural revolution, it seems our mandibular size and muscle robusticity has slowly become less pronounced (Larsen 1999: 230, Jurmain et al 2011).  As Larsen remarks (1999: 226), it is the influence of environment and mechanical behaviour that helps determine the morphology of the skull, alongside considered genetic factors.  It is important we keep this in mind as we look at archaeological material.  Studying population trends in both temporal, cultural and geographic contexts can have important results and can also highlight long term trends.

One such trend is the discussion that a change to a more ‘globular cranial change in the Holocene represents a compensatory response to decrease in functional demands as foods become softer’ (Larsen 1999: 268).  This is underscored in archaeological populations worldwide that consumed abrasive foods with populations that consumed non abrasive foods.  By being affected by food production processes & the nature of the food itself, the morphology of the cranial facial biomechanics has changed to adjust to differing food sources.  This change has influenced cranio-facial size and morphology, occlusal abnormalities, tooth size, dental trauma, and gross wear from masticatory and non-masticatory functions (Larsen 1999: 269, Waldron 2009).

Case Study: A Mesolithic-Neolithic population trend in Ancient Japan

One example of the importance of cranial studies, and of the skull in general in archaeology, is the discussion of population change during the end of the Jomon period of Japan.  Lasting roughly from 14,000 BC to 300 BC, the Jomon culture has evidence for the earliest use of pottery in the world, and made extensive use of the large variety of environments in the Japanese archipelago (Mithen 2003).  This culture has been classed as largely hunter-gather-forager in lifestyle, until roughly the Yayoi period around 300 BC; when the adoption to agriculture was fully implemented with intensive rice agriculture, weaving and the introduction of metallurgy (Mays 1998: 90).

The evidence suggests that the Yayoi were settlers from mainland Asia, with the evidence from craniometric studies and dental studies of both Jomon and Yayoi populations, alongside a comparative study with the modern day aboriginal Ainu people who inhabit the island of Hakkaido, north of mainland Japan.  The Ainu population themselves maintain that they are the descendents of the Jomon people, and with the skeletal data of skull morphology in the modern population compared to the Jomon archaeological data set, the evidence seems to match (Mays 1998: 92).  Population pressures during the end of the Jomon period and movement of the Jomon culture is therefore suggested as a geographic movement.  The skeletal data from the modern day Ainu population, concentrated in Hokkaido, provide evidence of a Jomon movement north due to pressure, as mainland Japanese modern population cranial measurements shows a mix of origin (Mays 1998: 90).

The importance of this work highlights the movement of the adaptation of agriculture in a relatively late time frame, in comparison to mainland Asia and Europe.  The palaeoenvironmental evidence suggests the richness and diversity of the Japanese archipelago, with heavy densities of the Jomon population in 3500 BC located in central and eastern Japan (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 2).

Stable village sites with pits dwellings, storage areas and burial facilities have been excavated and studied, yet there is only a hint of cultivating nuts and plants.  Ongoing date conflicts with AMS results from human and animal bone have suggested the impact of the Yayoi culture to be pushed back to 1000 BC or 900 BC.  However the results could be contaminated with the ‘marine radiocarbon reservoir effect’, a natural distortion of dates and thus a possible need to recalibrate existing dates (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 4).  The outcome of the timing of adoption of agriculture in the Late Jomon/Yayoi period is still hotly debated. Yet the archaeological and osteoarchaeological evidence presents a hunter gather society managing to thrive without agriculture in diverse environments until later cultures and migrations of people came into contact with the Jomon culture (Mays 1998).

Further Information


Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Kaner, S. and Ishikawa, T. 2007. ‘Reassessing the concept of ‘Neolithic’ in the Jomon of Western Japan’. Documenta Preahistorica. 2007. 1-7.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Mithen, S. 2003. After The Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC.London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. Stroud: The History Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

RIP Tim Hetherington & Chris Hondros

22 Apr

Photograph By Tim Hetherington.

Today I read the obituary of Tim Hetherington, a renowned photojournalist who was recently killed, alongside the photographer Chris Hondros, by mortar rounds in Misurata, in the ongoing conflict in Libya a few days ago.  His obituary in The Daily Telegraph can be found here, and his obituary on the Human Rights Watch website can be found here.

Chad Soldiers Near Sudanese Border (Hetherington 2006).

As I read about his journalistic work covering conflicts, recording people’s stories and the unrest in countries such as Nigeria, Chad, Libya, Afghanistan, Darfur and Liberia amongst others, I recognised his work.  I had watched Restrepo, his and Sebastian Junger’s film about US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.  His work has helped to spark international outrage over Liberia’s civil war and the atrocities carried out by Charles Taylor, which has helped to inform Western audiences.  He will also be remembered for his dedicated work with Human Rights Watch.

It is important that we do not forget that whilst he was objective in his work and compassionate in his outlook, Hetherington also worked and helped support various charities that tried to make a difference for the hard hit people he documented.

As journalists document the world around them, archaeologists document the world before them.  However archaeologists are not immune from what goes around them.  We, too, live in the present.  We do not just deal in the past.  Although we uncover and investigate artefacts and cultures, we also use multidisciplinary approaches in our work.  We use ethnographic evidence from a wide range of nations, we participate with research groups from other countries, we compile evidence and hold discussions worldwide.  One way in which we can become involved is through groups such as this University of Sheffield Archaeologists for Justice.

This is the world we live in.  We can help to make an informed decision.  There is a variety of blogs (The Activist), newspapers, magazine and television programs (Unreported World strand) that help to highlight injustice in the world, and more importantly what we can do as individuals or groups to help change.

You too can help by sponsoring or donating money to a number of important charities.  I have named a few in the blog roll below, here are a few more:

The Avaaz- The World In Action site directly provides the people with a voice on matters worldwide, from a world-wide community.  Medecins Sans Frontieres are a charity that support doctors and provide medical supplies to various poverty & war stricken nations across the world.  The Disaster Emergency Committee provide vital care and aid to countries that have to cope with natural disaster aftermaths, both in the long-term and the short-term.  Unicef is the United Nations arm that help to provide care and attention to children throughout the world.  The Anti-Slavery charity website help investigate, report and help people recuperate worldwide from the effects of modern-day slavery.  This is involves sex slavery, child slavery & forced labour in a variety of countries.

Skeletal Series Part 2: Ethics In Human Osteology

18 Apr

Ethics, as defined by White & Folkens (2005), is the study of standards of conduct and of moral judgement. In this case various institutions and organisations that deal with human skeletal material from archaeological sites often have their own well-defined conditions and standards when dealing with skeletal material.  There are many applications for human remains in archaeological contexts.  They are used for teaching, research, in the application of new scientific techniques, demonstration purposes, alongside the long-term storage of such remains for future studies.  The multidisciplinary use of human bone use in archaeology is discussed below).  It is key to the user of such sensitive material that there are guidelines to be followed with respects to the remains.  As with all biological material, human bone is fragile and should be carefully handled, stored and sensitively managed.  It must be always bore in mind that they are the physical remains of a person who had once lived, and a key aspect is to always treat the remains with dignity and respect (BABAO guidelines).

As it has already been noted in previous posts, with relation to possible reburial of human remains in Britain and the removal of bodies from display in museums, alongside the American act of repatriation (NAGPRA); ethics in archaeological conditions and the use of human remains have become ‘complex, fluid, ambiguous, politicised and confusing’ (White & Folkens 2005: 24).

As Mays (1999: xii) remarks that ‘archaeology is about people and how they lived in the past (that) the study of physical remains of those people should therefore be a central component of archaeological enquiry’.  It is important we keep in mind the often vast temporal, cultural and sometimes geographic distances between ourselves, the investigators, and to those we uncover.  Human skeletal remains from archaeological sites are a finite resource.  it is only through the continued study, and application of scientific investigations of remains, that we can find out about how we came to be the way we are today.

Skeletal remains offer an important resource on human variation; both genetically and from there differing geographic locations (Larsen 1997).  More and more skeletal remains are used in historical studies, in economics, in the study of disease, and in nutritional studies.  It is the science behind human evolution as whole that helps to understand the modern-day population of Homo sapiens.  An interesting case, for instance, is the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia and the relationship to malarial infection in Western and Central Africa as an evolutionary effect from genetic drift (Jurmain et al 2010: 87-88).  It is from a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, our comparative and hominid evolutionary history, alongside the studies of bioculture that we can being to understand ourselves.  From afflictions that affect us today such as understanding osteoarthritis, osteomalacia, and rickets (Marshland & Kapoor 2008) to understanding the society and burial rituals of  Iron Age Arras Culture in East Yorkshire (Hope in Jupp & Gittings 1999:43).

As White & Folkens (2005) point out, we must also learn to re-evaluate ourselves, our own methods and practices.  Rampart development in various parts of the world (such as America and Australia) have led to many sites being poorly excavated without proper guidelines and frameworks for research and future study.  It is by combination of scientific community and native groups, that the ‘need to redirect their energies in a concerted effort to save and protect the heritage of the past before it disappears’ is valued and promoted more than ever (White & Folkens 2005: 29).

However, before we become carried away it is vitally important that an ethical and standards framework is insinuated into the very heart of archaeological practice.  As such, I shall end this post here with a selection of key points from the BABAO Code of Ethics and Code of Standards have been reproduced below:

  • ‘Facilities that hold biological remains should maintain archival quality copies of all records (e.g., written records, maps, raw data, results of analyses, all type of illustration ( i.e. pictures or drawings), film, tape records, or digital images).
  • Recognise that human remains can be viewed differently in other countries at local, regional or national levels.
  •  Biological remains, particularly human remains, of any age or provenance must be treated with care and dignity.
  • Biological remains should only be studied or viewed for legitimate purposes, e.g. the production of human bone reports by commercial units, analysis and research in institutions.
  • Biological remains should not be considered as private property.
  • All applicable laws and regulations within institutions and countries regarding biological remains should be followed, and relevant guidance considered.
  • All results of scientific value should be published, ideally in peer-reviewed publications as well as publicly accessible media (e.g., museum exhibits, non-specialized publications, and/or internet) within a reasonable time. In sensitive cases, where biological material can be demonstrated to be connected to genealogical descendants or affiliated cultural communities, these groups should be informed of the results prior to publication, if feasible.

Finally, another last quote from White & Folkens which perfectly highlights what the osteologist must also do:

It is essential for osteologists interested in conducting laboratory and field research in foreign countries to make early and open contact with the governmental administrators and local scholars in any country in which they intend to work.  Research must go hand-in-hand with development in these situations, ensuring meaningful, uninterrupted progress and productive science‘ (2005: 30).


BABAO Codes of Ethics and Standards in Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (see download for full document).

Jupp, P. C. & Gittings, C. 1999. Death in England: An Illustrated History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marshland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics. London: Mosby Elsevier.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Skeletal Series Part 1: Bone Variation & Biomechanics

10 Apr

In the following series of blog posts I aim to cover each of the main skeletal elements.  Each post will have a single focus on a bony element, from the skull down to the bones of the foot.  Firstly though we must deal with the variation that human osteologists and bioarchaeologists will see in individual skeletons, and in a population series.  It is both useful and informative to learn the differences and the effects caused by the 4 main variation factors in the morphology of human bones.  As it is by ascertaining the degree of influences that the variation factors can cause that we can begin to understand the individual, and the skeletal series of a population, in a more informative and considered way.  The second part of this entry will focus on the basics of biomechanics, and the influences certain lifeways can have on bone.

The basic biology of bones was previously discussed in this post here, and of teeth here.  Bone in its natural state must be recognised as a changing living organism throughout life that responds to stress, both nutritional and mechanical, and remodels accordingly.  It is also must be remembered that bone is a composite material, and is able to heal itself.

Variation 1 : Ontogeny

Ontogeny is simply growth and development of an organism, in this case Homo sapiens.  The archaeological record of skeleton remains include unborn individuals right through to individuals in their 70th year and beyond.  Typically there are 7 classification groups of human age groups.  They run from Fetus (before birth), Infant (0-3 years), Child (3-12 years), Adolescent (12-20 years), Young Adult (20-35 years), Middle Adult (35-50 years), and Old Adult (50+ years) (White & Folkens 2005: 364).  Differences in bone structure, and in the growth of different bone elements often manifest themselves in changes in size and shape.

Adult with Two Juvenile Remains, From Southern Sahara

Basic Growth Profile for Homo Sapiens, Notice the Large Cranium and the Way the Body Catches Up.

Variation 2: Sexual Dimorphism

Humans are sexually dimorphic, that is there are differences between the female and male body size.  Although not as distinct between our cousins such as the gorillas, female human skeletal remains are relatively smaller in both bones and teeth size (Jurmain et a 2010).  Such skeletal variation is also manifest in the requirement of reproductive functions in the female skeleton, thus we are also often able to tell sex from skeletal remains (White & Folkens 2005: 32).

Generalised Male:Female Sexual Dimorphism

Variation 3: Idiosyncractic Differences

The idiosyncratic  (or individual) differences found in skeletons are simply natural variations, in the understanding that every body is different, and rarely are people exactly the same (identical twins excluded).  Idiosyncratic differences in bone affect the size and shape of the bone, and the topography of the bone surface.  Again, such variation is very common in human skeletal remains (White & Folkens 2005: 32).

Disarticulated human bone from the site of Armana, ancient Egypt.

Variation 4: Geographic or Population-Based

As White & Folkens point out ‘different human groups can differ in many skeletal and dental characteristics’ (2005: 32).  Thus this geographic variation can be employed to assess population affinities between skeletal series.  This trait can be quite useful in determining commingling of certain populations in prehistoric skeletal series as certain environmental and genetic traits can be passed on.

Biomechanic Basics

So these are the four main variations we should be aware of when we are looking and studying individual skeletons or a series of a population.  By considering these four main variations we can study the individual’s life pathway alongside other lines of investigation.  What we must also take into account next are the basics of biomechanics.  Biomechanics is the application of engineering principles to biological materials, whilst remembering that bone can remodel and change according to pressures put upon the bone.  As Larsen states that ‘the density of bone tissue differs within the skeleton and within individual bones in response to the varying mechanical demands’ (1997: 197).  It must be remembered that the response of human bone to ‘increased loading is in the distribution of bone (geometric) rather than density or any other intrinsic material property of bone’ (Larsen 1997: 197).

Importantly it is noted that Human bone is anisotropic, meaning its mechanical properties vary according to the direction of the load.  Importantly, Wolff’s Law highlights how bone replaces itself in the direction of functional demand.  A classic example of the remodelling capabilities of bone is that of the tennis player who has thicker cortical bone in their dominant arm.  This manifests itself in thicker cortical bone alongside hypertrophy of the muscle attachment sites.  One study carried out found that ‘males have a 35% increase in the cortical bone in the distal humerus of the playing arm vs the non-playing arm’, helping to exemplify Wolff’s Law (Larsen 1997: 196).  That study was an example of bilateral asymmetry humeral loading.  Alongside, it is the action of the main forces acting on human bone that help to change the bone, these  include a) compression, b) tension, c) shear, d) torsion & E) compression + tension+ bending.

Wolff’s law states that healthy load bearing bone (LBB) responds to strain by ‘placing or displacing themselves (at a mechanical level) in the direction of the functional pressure, & increase or decrease their mass to reflect the amount of functional pressure’, often muscular strain and/or weight bearing pressures (Mays 1999: 3).  As a part of this Frost (2004: 3) argues that the ‘mechanostat’, a tissue level negative feedback system, involves ‘two thresholds that make a bone’s strains determine its strength by switching on and off the biologic mechanisms that increase or decrease its strength’.  However, Skerry (2006: 123) has argued that there are many ‘mechanostats’ operating on the LBB and that different elements throughout the skeleton require different strain magnitudes for maintenance. Furthermore Skerry (2006: 126) also notes that differences are apparent between the sexes, and that genetic constitution, concomitant disease, exercise & activity patterns must be considered.

A recent article has also highlighted how the femoral neck width of obese people changes to accommodate the added weight.  In this case the width of the femoral neck has increased to dissipate weight throughout the bony area by increasing surface area and strength through redistribution of bone.  This is an example of active bone remodelling adapting to changes that the person has gone through in life.

An archaeological example of the above will now be taken from Larsen 1997.  ‘In the Pickwick Basin of northwestern Alabama, analysis carried out on both femora and humeri cross-sectional geometry has helped to reveal a number of differences between earlier Archaic Period hunter-gatherers and later Mississippian Period agriculturalists‘ (1997: 213).  From the femora measurements it seems that the both female and male agriculturalists had a greater bone strength, whilst analysis of male humeri shows little difference between the two series.  This has helped to show that activity levels increased for males but only in the lower limbs, as evidenced by the cross-section geometry.  However, for females of both time periods both humeri and femora strengths increased.  The article cited in Larsen (1997), Bridge 1991b, findings indicate that changes are from a greater range of activity undertaken by females than males.  With palaeopathological signs of osteoarthritis, it is concluded that the shift to food production,in particular maize production, may have had a relatively greater impact physically on women in this setting.

The next post will focus on ethics in human osteology, and from there we will consider each of the anatomical skeletal elements in context of their relative limb.


Frost, H. M. 2004. (A 2003). Update on Bone Physiology and Wolff’s law for Clinicians. Angle Orthodontist.  February 2004. 74 (1): 1-15.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones.Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Skerry, T. M. 2006. One Mechanostat or Many? Modifications of the Site-Specific Response of Bone to Mechanical Loading by Nature and Nurture. Journal of Musculoskeletal & Neuronal Interaction. 6 : 122-127. (Open Access).

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Gough’s Cave Skull Cups

9 Apr

The surgery went very well, and I’m glad to be out of hospital so soon.  As I entered the house again, my eyes fell greedily upon the latest edition of the British Archaeology magazine.  An article that caught my eye in particular was the latest developments concerning the various excavations, and new modern scientific investigations analysis at the Upper Palaeolithic site of Gough’s Cave located in the Mendip Hills, Somerset, southern England.

It has turned out that the cave has the earliest directly dated human skull cups.  This was reported in the media a few months ago, but now an in-depth article has come out on the online PLoS ONE journal.  The 2011 article, written by Silvia M. Bello, Simon A. Parfitt and Chris Stringer, can be found here and it is open access.

Palaeogeography At The Time of use of Goughs Cave (Figure 1, Bello et al. 2011).

The Upper Palaeolithic Site of Gough’s Cave

Now, this is big news.  The site of the butchered animal and human remains is dated to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Palaeolithic, around 14,700 BP (BP simply stands for Before Present) during the end last of the glacial period (Last Glacial Maximum).  The artefacts that have been found in this particular period at Gough’s Cave include flint tools, carved reindeer antler and mammoth ivory; a particular key find is the reindeer antler baton, a fine example of the craftmanship of the humans that used to live and roam this area.

Now the finds we are most concerned with are the evidence of the defleshing of the human remains, and the very probably use of human skulls as drinking vessels.  According to the articles stated above, the human remains were found with fauna including (in descending commonest order) wild horse, red deer, wolf, brown bear, lynx, saiga antelope, arctic fox and arctic hare (Stringer Et al, in BA magazine 2011:16).  The animal remains showed evidence of butchery, in accordance with using the flesh for food.  The co-mingled human remains, mostly cranial elements with post cranial elements also showed butchery marks, and do not seem to be deliberately buried.

A selection of the human cranial elements found, highlighting the breaking and fracturing of the cranial elements during reshaping (Source: Natural History Museum).

Human Cranial Remains and Modifications

The remains subjected to new scientific analysis included 41 elements, 37 from skulls and the rest from mandibles (lower jaw).  From the study of remains it has been suggested that they represent at least 5 individuals, including a young child, two adolescents, a young adult and an older adult (Stringer et al 2011: 19).  There were three complete mandibles alongside three skulls caps present (see above).

Although it had been suggested from earlier excavations, it is now thought that the bones did not suffer much from post-depositional effects (ie weathering or trampling).  Many of the elements have evidence of stone cut marks; most were done by slicing, some chopping but signs of scraping were seen as rare.  The skulls had less evidence of percussion marks whilst cut marks were particularly evident.  Importantly they showed no sign of fire damage (such as colour changes or flaking) and all cuts are ectocranial (Bello et al 2011).

Highlighting the main points of reshaping of the human crania (Figure 8 in Bello et al. 2011).

Carefully placed ectocranial percussion marks on the vault of the crania (Source: Natural History Museum).

The processing of the head can be clearly discerned:

A) The head was detached from the body, probably whilst the body was either frozen or in the grip of rigor mortis.  Cuts at the base of the skulls and on the cervical vertebrae indicate this took place shortly after death.

B) The mandible was removed next, evidence is seen by post-mortem scratches on teeth of both mandible and maxilla alongside percussion fractures (Bello et al 2011).

C) The major muscles of the skull were removed next (Temporalis & Masseter muscles in anatomical position) alongside the removal of the lips, ears, tongue, and the possible extraction of eyes and cheeks.

D) Cut marks along the parietal and occipital elements indicate scalping as well.

E) Finally, ‘the face and base of the skull was struck off with minimum damage to the vault, and the broken edges were chipped away to make the more regular’ (Stringer et al 2011).

Key Points

Evidence for cut marks on human bones in the Magdalenian period have also been found in the Rhine Valley in Germany, Dordogne area in France.  Sites such as Le Placard in Charente & Isturitz in Oyrenees-Atlantiques (see above location map), both in France have evidence for similar skull modification and processing.  Strikingly at Isturitz, one example even has carvings of animals in the skull elements.

However, as pointed out in an earlier article on cannibalism, post cranial elements found (including metatarsals with evidence of being chewed by humans) are thought to be an example of ‘nutritional cannibalism’, even with the large amount of faunal remains co-mingled with the human remains.  The slicing marks present on these post cranial elements are consistent with the striking of ‘green’ (fresh) bone.  An interesting experimental archaeological test involved two researchers having their students chew fresh sheep and  pig bones.

This was carried out in order to test if the bite marks found were similar to bite marks on human metatarsal and radius elements found, amongst other bones (Fernandez-Javlo & Andrews 2011).  The results helped to provide evidence that the chewing marks on the human bones (including a distal rib fragment) were probably caused by human teeth themselves.

Rib chewing-archaeology style.  In experimental tests archaeologists found that volunteers chewing ribs replicated the marks made on archaeological material human rib samples at Upper Palaeolithic sites (Fernandez- Jalvo & Peters 2011).

As stated above, the skull elements was treated remarkably different with careful processes present.  There was a distinctly high number of cut marks on the cranial elements present.  Alongside this, a lack of trauma indicates that this is not for mutilation purposes, as seen at some American sites (Stringer et al 2011: 20/Larsen 1997).  At sites where nutritional cannibalism has been documented, the skull is often fractured and broken in aiding access to the brain tissues within.  At Gough’s cave, the skulls have been carefully prepared with flints and carefully processed.

This hints at possible uses of the skull-caps as containers for liquids or holders for other objects.  Ethnographic and historical sources have pointed to various cultures preparing and using human skulls as containers, war trophies or as libation instruments.  Classically, Herodotus portrayed the Scythians as people who drank from the skulls of their enemies, whilst in ‘Buddhism human skull bowls have been used as libation vessels.  In India, the use of skull cups seems to be still practiced by the Agori sub-sect’ (Stringer et all 2011: 20).  Very interestingly, the article by Bello et al (2011) remarks that there are few archaeological finds for skull-caps, in consideration of the wide temporal and geographical spread of ethnographic and historical evidence.  One example is the Neolithic site at Herxheim in Germany, previously discussed in a blog post by Kate Brown.

In conclusion, the Gough’s Cave skulls-cups have been securely dated, and are the only ones found so far in the British Isles.  The mystery still remains why they took part in this painstaking process.


Bello, S. M. Parfitt, S. A. & Stringer, C. B. 2011. ‘Earliest Directly Dated Skull-Cups‘. PLoS ONE. (Open Access Article).

Bones Don’t Lie. 2011. Cheddar’s Cranial Cups.  Blog Site.

Fernandez-Jalvo, Y. & Andrews, P. 2011. When Humans Chew Bones. Journal of Human Evolution. 60 (1): 117-123.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stringer, C. B. et al. 2011. Gough’s Cave, SomersetBritish Archaeology. May-June.

Skeleton People…

3 Apr

Another classic article from The Onion website:

“This is an incredible find,” said Dr. Christian Hutchins, Oxford University archaeologist and head of the dig team. “Imagine: At one time, this entire area was filled with spooky, bony, walking skeletons.”

The rest of the hilarious article can be found here:,1268/

It seems archaeologists have recently uncovered a race of ‘skeleton’ people!

On another more serious note, I’m having surgery tomorrow to remove some hardware (proximal left femur and removing of two screws from the femoral neck, plus some exploratory movement and investigation).  Now this might mean I won’t be writing here for a while depending on how surgery goes.  As I said before I have a certain bone disease, for all you human osteologist diehards out there my disease is McCune Albright Syndrome with the bone disease call Fibrous Dysplasia.  A detailed medical website describes the attributes for Albright Syndrome and its implications here.

Although I am free of any endocrine function anomalies, I do have the Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia element of MAS.  This had led to extensive femoral surgery alongside a good number of fractures on the long bones of the body, particularly the right tibia/fibula, right humerus, and both femora.  However, I consider myself relatively lucky considering how extreme this disease can get.  Below is an X-ray of pretty much what femora look like-


A typical femoral intramedullary rod, highlighting the extra screw into the femoral neck to stablise the femur (nicknamed Sheffield rods due to the city’s metal heritage) (source: Google).

Finding out information on MAS and PFD on the internet is hard work as not many medical articles have been wrote on the subject.  The journal of Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery naturally has a number of interesting articles on the subject of long bone deformities.  I’ll write a more detailed post later on, with my experiences of surgery and how the bone condition is managed.

So enjoy the post below on cannibalism, and I will be back shortly!

Guest Blog: ‘Cannibalism In Archaeology Part 2: Mancos Canyon And Herxheim Case Studies’ by Kate Brown.

3 Apr

Kate Brown is a current archaeological undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research interests include Osteology, Zooarchaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Scandinavian archaeology alongside the general study of funerary rituals in human culture.


Following my previous post on cannibalism in archaeology, I would like to discuss a few archaeological case studies in more detail.

Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 (White 1992)

The Mancos site, of the Anasazi or Ancient Peublo Peoples culture,  is located is located on Ute Mountain in Montezuma County, Colorado. The bone assemblage consisting of 2106 bone fragments was excavated in 1973 by Larry Nordby. Although the site is based on high ground, it is only 75m North East of the Mancos river, giving it access to both security and a reliable water source. Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 is held as a site of significant importance when referring to cannibalism, due to its excellent levels of preservation, owing to the lack of evidence for either pre or post depositional disturbance of the assemblage. This is imperative to reach such conclusions as it reduces the possibility of confusion in interpretations.

Location of the Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 site (White 1992).

In the 1973 excavations, a multi-room habitation was found, which had been built over the remains of an earlier dwelling. Primary interments (burials 1, 2, 4 and 12) were fairly typical, and were mostly contained within the rooms of the earliest structure. The rest of the skeletal remains were found in the room fill as well as on the floor surface, and because of this they were originally interpreted as either secondary or disturbed burials. The fragments in these ‘bone beds’ at the site could not be found to have any association or articulation, and individuals appear to be mixed together indiscriminately across the assemblage.

There are many indications of possible cannibalistic consumption happening at the site.

Thin long bones, most notably fibula, were found mainly intact, however, larger more robust bones, such as tibias and femurs were found highly fragmented; this points to impact being inflicted on the bones in order to reach the bone marrow, known as percussion. Percussion marks can be seen on many of the skeletal remains recovered.

Breaks and fracture with subsequent polishing marks on the humerii (White 1992).

Scratches on some skull fragments are likely indicative of scalping rather than attempts to crack open the skull as in other cases, due to the thickness of the skull in this case as a result of osteoporosis.

The bones themselves were bleached quite light, and this is seen frequently in cases of cannibalism, as a result of being interred without any flesh adhering to the bones. Evidence of burning is evident on a large amount of remains, and because the pattern of burning on the bones is so varied it is possible to assume that they were heated whilst some flesh was still attached. Pattern fracturing and fragmentation of long bone shafts in the assemblage are strongly evident of marrow extraction, which is common across cannibalism sites.

Crushing evident on anterior alveolar region of the mandible (White 1992).

The evidence for cannibalism at the site of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 is extensive, and includes high frequencies of most of the standardised factors for recognising such activity- the polishing of the ends of long bones as a result of cooking in coarse pottery, splintering and shaft breakage of long bones to facilitate marrow extraction; clear percussion scars, hammerstone abrasion, fracturing and crushing of bones; cutmarks indicating skin peeling and butchery; crushed skulls, chopmarks and peeling on lumbar vertebrae as well as a high frequency of rib breakage.

Peeling marks on thoracic vertebrae (White 1992).

In terms of the pathology of the Mancos Canyon assemblages, it is quite typical of an Anasazi population. At Mancos MTUMR-2346 there are at least seven individuals with cranial deformation, and this is found to be present in all skeletal assemblages from Mancos Canyon. Cases of caries and abscessing are identifiable on two mandibles, and dental enamel hypoplasiawould appear to be quite prevalent throughout the population. This is also typical of Anasazi populations, who often suffered significant nutritional stress.

Overall, the high number of young adult individuals far outweighs the instances of older individuals, which is unusual for a cemetery population.

Nordby (1974) interpreted that the site of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 was either attacked, with its inhabitants being killed, dismembered and consumed at the kill site, or that the inhabitants of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 attacked a larger site elsewhere and brought dismembered bodies back to their own site for consumption.

Herxheim (Boulestin et al. 2009)

Located in the South of the German Federal State of Rhineland-Palinate, above a loess soil plateau, Herxheim is an early Neolithic Linearbandkeramic (LBK) site with compelling evidence for cannibalistic activity. Excavations have found evidence of a village that was inhabited between 5300 and 4950 BC. At the site there is a non-continuous (pseudo) ditch, which is rare in the Neolithic period, and is thought to have served as a symbolic boundary rather than as a physical defence. This is evidence of the sites importance, and demonstrative of a central position at a regional level. This could also serve as an explanation of the sites importance through to the final linear pottery period despite the change in function it underwent at this time.

Location of Herxheim site (Boulestin et al. 2009).

During the final linear pottery period, no new pits were dug, instead previously existing ones were re used to allow for the deposition of human remains, along with some fauna, ceramics, and tools made of both stone and bone. Scatters of bone fragments, some numbering up to 2000 fragments, have been recovered from these pits, and are representative of a minimum number of 500 individuals. However, with only half of the enclosure having being excavated at this point, it is hypothesised that there could be up to 1000 individuals within the entire area. In the assemblage, there is a notably high proportion of both skull fragments and leg bones compared to fragments from elsewhere in the skeletal system. Deposition occurred over a maximum of 50 years, but was probably a lot less than this.

Deposit 9 at Herxheim (Boulestin et al. 2009).

Deposit 9 was excavated in 2007, and contained a much higher density of human remains than anywhere else on site. In the assemblage recovered from deposit 9, breakage was common, especially that of long limb bones. Short shallow cut marks are typically indicative of defleshing, which is common in cases of cannibalism. There is also evidence of butchery and skinning on fragments, shown by deeper varied cutmarks. Across the skull fragments found in the deposit, cracks and fracturing occurred often. Spongy bones were also often found to have been crushed, and peeling marks were frequently seen on both vertebrae and ribs, showing a butchery technique similar to that used in the butchery of animals to separate the ribs from the vertebral column.

Rib breakage and peeling marks on vertebrae (Boulestin et al. 2009).

As I have previously discussed in my last post, this is one of the standard indicators of cannibalism. Defleshing of long bones and marrow extraction are visible through scrape marks on the bones, and marrow cavities, and is another common manifestation of cannibalistic activity. Differential breakage of long bones can be observed, with bones housing larger volumes of marrow being far more likely to have been broken or fractured. This could be a result of the relative nutritional value to be gained from the differing bones. Finger bones were also preferentially broken, although foot bones seem to have been left more often intact.

Example of differential breakage (Boulestin et al. 2009).

Green bone breakage is another requisite for proof of cannibalism, and there is strong evidence of this taking place at Herxheim from the form of fragments as well as fracture outlines on bones.

Skulls seem to have been the subject of particular attention, with many showing evidence of skinning following a repetitive method. In many cases, the tongue was removed, which is evident by cut and scrape marks on the lingual surface of the mandible. In some instances, the mandible was also removed from the skull following this.

A distinct distribution of chew marks support the interpretation of cannibalism occurring at Herxheim; if the result of carnivore activity it would tend to have a much more random distribution across the remains than what is evident. However, because the cause of death is, at this point, undetermined, it is difficult to say whether this instance of cannibalism was a result of war, ritual activity, or a response to nutritional stress or starvation. Current interpretations view it to most likely be either a result of sacrificial ritual or revenge related to warfare, perhaps as an element of possible crisis at the end of the LBK period. This would also be supported by the evidence of increased violence at this time.

Instances of cannibalism in the Neolithic is often underestimated, largely because of the difficulties in recognising it following the current set of criteria, and in defending such interpretations, which are the subject of high amounts of controversy. However, these two sites, along with many more, have provided at least the possibility of cannibalism happening within past societies for varying reasons, and hopefully with more research, more stable interpretations can be reached and agreed upon.


Boulestin, B., Zeeb-Lanz, A., Jeunesse, C., Haack, F., Arbogast, R., Denaire, A. 2009. Mass Cannibalism in the Linear Pottery Culture at Herxheim. Antiquity 83 (German language).

Nordby, L.V. 1974. The excavation of sites 5MTUMR-2343, -2345 AND -2346, Mancos Canyon, Ute Mountain, Ute Homelands, Colorado. Bereau Indian Affairs, Contract MOOC14201337 Report.

White, T.D. 1992. Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346. Princeton: University Press.