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Health in Past Societies: Biocultural Interpretations of Human Skeletal Remains in Archaeological Contexts.

This volume adequately reflects its title in the form of a series of papers in two sections, Concepts and Methods and Case Studies. It is the result of a session organized by the editors at the 1988 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at the University of Sheffield. At first glance the papers in the first section seem unrelated in terms of theme, and they range from the evolution of psychosomatic phenomena to dental histology, but in the Preface, the authors clearly link the papers together. Some of the authors were contributors at the conference and some papers were invited for the volume.

There is clear criticism of the British approach to the study of ancient disease (palaeopathology), aimed primarily at the medically qualified dabbling in the archaeological world with no consideration of human remains within a cultural context. To a large extent this is true, but interpretation of pathological processes and their effect on humans likewise needs medical expertise. It has to be said that the discipline has improved over the past 10 years. Workers in the field have now recognized the need for the integration of skeletal studies into a biocultural approach to past populations.

Bush discusses concepts of health and stress (a subject dear to many researchers' hearts today) and problems of defining stress, and considers the link between psychological elements and the development of stress markers in the skeleton. Hyland & Scutt continue this theme, investigating the relationship between psychological states and morbidity and mortality. It is an interesting concept to consider, but assessing the influence of psychology on mortality rates, for example, in archaeological populations would be challenging!

Goodman analyses adaptation and maladaptation to environment in past societies. What influence do food, water and shelter have on health patterns? These factors are of fundamental importance to understanding past human behaviour. The presence of disease in society will inevitably affect its function. Cattaneo expands the theme of health studies by discussing the potential for genetic and immunological information being extracted from skeletal remains in the form of biomolecules. This is an ever-expanding and fashionable discipline, but it is not without its problems, particularly contamination before, during and post excavation. However, she charts some successes in the extraction of biomolecules, e.g. collagen and blood protein, and describes the use of HLA antigens in British human skeletal material. This clearly is currently one of the major research areas in biological anthropology. Hillson's approach to health in past communities by the analysis of dental histology adds another dimension to the potential information from human remains and completes Part 1 of this volume.

The Case Studies, in Part 2, consist of a number of authors applying accepted measures of health to skeletal populations in the Americas and Europe. Grauer's study of the medieval cemetery of St Helen-on-the-Walls, York, uses multiple seriation techniques of ageing to determine mortality and morbidity patterns, and thereby circumvents some of the problems aimed at palaeodemographic reconstruction. However, it should be remembered that the use of some adult ageing techniques in populations of known age have proved problematic in their reliability. This study was particularly useful because of the relatively few published studies of this population. Dobney & Goodman tackle the problem of what enamel hypoplasia means epidemiologically (defects in tooth enamel). This is a feature recorded by all workers but its cause could be one of many factors ranging from childhood disease to malnutrition. Mexican and Bradford schoolchildren were studied. Interestingly, the Bradford group's enamel defects did not correspond, as hypothesized, with socio-economic status and the methods to determine socioeconomic status are questioned here. However, the Mexican group's defects correlated with levels of nutrition. This last group had been divided into two study groups, one being given a supplement to their normal diet (one does question the ethics of this experiment). The supplemented group were less likely to have defects. Clearly, different studies produce contrasting results, but this paper is invaluable to physical anthropologists working with these types of data. It shows the potential pitfalls in the interpretation of palaeopathological data and the use of modern clinical studies to help prevent these pitfalls.

Stuart-Macadam's clear study of anaemia in the Romano-British population from Poundbury shows the high prevalence of this disease in the individuals buried there. However, its aetiology (diet, parasites, lead ingestion, malaria or a genetic type of anaemia) remains unclear but it appears was probably multifactorial.

Eisenberg's study of a population from Tennessee, US, dating from AD 900--1550 incorporates multiple skeletal and dental health indicators and shows the potential for such studies. A useful part of this study was consideration of healed and active bone lesions representative of certain disease processes. The presence of active lesions shows that when the person died the disease was actively progressing and was not in a resolved state. Some of these active lesions are obvious for some diseases, but the recording for others needs clarification. Finally, Meiklejohn & Zvelebil examine the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic by examining biological data revealing that there was unexpected variability in health status related to differences in diet and lifestyle. Some studies reveal increased levels of stress with the transition to agriculture, but the stress observed in the biological data considered here was not, they felt, related to the transition. It was clear in this study that the data considered suffered from small sample sizes and lack of comparability between workers. This underlines yet again the need for consistency in reporting in human remains, standardization of recording and the necessity of describing the skeletal remains within their cultural context.

The whole book is clearly written, edited and laid out with illustrations which are, in general, of high quality. It provides a useful contribution to some of the current research interests in biological anthropology. The case studies were particularly helpful in underlining the problems and potential in this discipline and the need continually to question long-held assumptions. It is only recently that biological anthropology has been truly considered as a necessary part of the reconstruction of past human societies, and it is only with continued training in the discipline and an integrated approach that the subject will become a leader, certainly in European contexts.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS Department of Archaeological Sciences University of Bradford
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Author:Roberts, Charlotte
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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