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‘Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton’ by Clark Spencer Larsen

13 Jan

For me there are two key books that are needed in the human osteologist’s  personal library for reference that highlight the value of the trade (1).  The first one, perhaps unsurprisingly, is White & Folkens 2005 book The Human Bone Manual.  It is a book that I’ve mentioned plenty of times here, and it is one that remains the combined field/laboratory bible for identifying fragments and individual bones of the human skeletal system.  Although the authors, along with Michael T. Black, released a 3rd edition of the Human Osteology book in 2011 (a heavier reverential tome with input on palaeontology and forensics), the human bone manual itself remains the best easy-to-transport identification book on the market today – a beautifully realised manual which is hardy and ready for the field and the lab, for the under-graduates and the professionals alike.

The second book for me however highlights the true wealth that knowledge of human osteology can unlock in the archaeological record, especially when interpreting past human behaviour from a number of different cultures in an international context.  It is, of course, Clark Spencer Larsen’s 1997 book Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton (2) (published as part of the Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology series).  Illuminating in its archaeological scope and international context, the book is itself a marvel and a testament to the great breadth and depth of the bioarchaeological work that has been carried out as a whole in the discipline.  If there is a single book that I could recommend to an audience who is interested in learning about bioarchaeology work and the value of interpreting the skeletal record that it would be this comprehensive book.

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Weighing in at 461 pages, Larsen’s book will ground the reader in the scientific approaches used to ascertain behaviour from the human skeleton in the archaeological record (Image credit: source).

Clark Spencer Larsen is incredibly well positioned to have produced such a tome as he has with this book.  Currently a Distinguished Professor of Social and Behaviour Sciences at the department of anthropology at the Ohio State University, Larsen has focused his diverse skills as a researcher in producing a very fine synthesis of the value of bioarchaeology.  In particular by focusing on human behaviour, as can be inferred from human skeletal material, Larsen highlights the very real and integral worth of the study of human osteology and bioarchaeology in the wider historical context.

The book is therefore split into discrete chapters that deal with specific clusters in the osteological record, each with their own introduction, over 461 pages.  Topics include but are not limited to: injury or violent death, activity patterns, stress and deprivation markers during growth, infectious pathogens, isotope and chemical signatures in bone.  There is also extensive discussions on skeletal variations in populations.  It is, to put it simply, an invigorating, engaging and a wide-ranging read.  Larsen confidently sets out his view that skeletal remains have so much to offer in understanding the past lifestyles and behaviours of cultures, populations and individuals from the archaeological record.  The diagrams are often clean and easy to read, although some of the black and white photographs suffer from a loss of clarity in my paperback version of the 1999 reprint.

Larsen includes a reflective final chapter on the changes and challenges in bioarchaeology, noting the differences used in data recording standards, highlighting problems of sample representation and raising issues involved in cultural patrimony.  In particular he highlights the osteological paradox in the inference of health and lifestyle, noting that continued advances in bioarchaeology must always go hand in hand with diligence on a part of the researcher in understanding the very real and necessary limitations of the data set (Larsen 1999: 337).  He ends, somewhat emphatically, with the statement that “the chance is now at hand for sharing this information widely, especially regarding the large and crucial part that human biology and bioarchaeology play in understanding the history of the human condition” (Larsen 1999: 342).

There are however a few caveats I would add to anyone reading this rather wonderful book.

It should be noted here that the book itself is a synthesis of the bioarchaeological record as it stood in 1997, and as such it is assumed that the reader is already relatively cognizant of the terminology used when discussing the human skeletal system and the wider application of human osteology in archaeological remains.  Having said that Larsen does provide a straightforward introduction to both the book and human skeletal biology in the first chapter.  Personally I approached this book after first reading the White and Folkens (2005) human bone manual and Mays (1999) book on the use of human remains in archaeology when I realised during my undergraduate degree that I wanted to specialise in this area of research.

For those that are unused to reading academic textbooks there could also be a jarring issue with the sheer amount of references used throughout the text.  The referencing system used here (as in most archaeological departments, journals and books) is the Harvard system, where the author(s) and year of publication are stated within the sentence itself.  As such this can lead to fragmented and broken sentences that can potentially be tough to digest on a first read.  The upshot of this, and I would argue that it is a big one, is that half of the page is not taken up with footnotes.  Further to this there is an incredible bibliography at the end of the book detailing each of the articles cited within the main text – it is a veritable goldmine for researchers and interested readers who went to delve further into the techniques used in bioarchaeology.

Larsen’s book is still a first edition that has not been updated since the original publication date of 1997, thus the reader should be aware that there have been marked advances in certain fields in bioarchaeology.  This is perhaps most deftly illustrated in the discussion of chemical and genetic markers, which are commonly used in bioarchaeology, specifically the changes in the way stable light isotopes are used and the quite incredible advances in understanding and sequencing ancient DNA from archaeological bone (Killgrove 2013).  There will likely be other instances where the information provided may now be out of date within the purview of the current scientific literature.  I have heard that Larsen is producing a second up to date edition of ‘Bioarchaeology’ (I would readily buy a second edition as soon as it was published), but I have heard no firm knowledge of this as of yet.  I have also had the pleasure of watching Larsen talk at a conference in Wales that I attended a few years ago on the topic of the Neolithic period and the lifestyle change from hunter-gathering to farming, and I remain upbeat to read more of his prestigious work.

Although I have highlighted a few caveats to be aware of when reading this book I would recommend it without doubt; it is only one of the few bioarchaeological books out there that attempts to take in the whole glorious sweep of bioarchaeological knowledge for a general and interested audience, detailing where the field is heading and why we, as practitioners, must insist on the importance of studying the human skeleton in the archaeological record.

Notes

(1) It should also be noted here that there are human osteological standards available (Schwartz 2006, Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994) but they are not discussed here.

(2) Please note that this book is not a standard for interpreting and studying skeletal material first hand, but rather a book that demonstrates the breadth of bioarchaeological knowledge and discusses some of the approaches used.

Bibliography

Larsen, C. S. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Killgrove K. 2013. Bioarchaeology. In Oxford Bibliographies Online – Anthropology. (ed.) Jackson, J.L. Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Schwartz, J. H. 2007. Skeleton Keys: An Introduction to Human Skeletal Morphology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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