Skeletons: What can we learn from human remains?

Human skeletal remains are a very direct, and substantial link to past human occupation in way that everyone can understand, and there is much to learn through osteological analysis, or the study of bones.   Everything from a basic inventory where we determine presence/absence of various elements, or bones, to DNA studies, to a variety of carbon-based tests, can answer a multitude of questions we may not have even known to ask.

Every osteological assessment begins with a straightforward, although not necessarily easy, exercise of conducting an inventory – a presence/absence of all the bones that should be present.   Based on this inventory, and by examining certain variables or ‘markers’ on the skeleton, an osteologist can often determine an individual’s sex, age at death, stature, if they suffered specific types of trauma and/or disease – and if those traumas or diseases occurred before, during, or after death.

Sometimes, analysis stops here.  But in other circumstances, further study is conducted.  While no means an exhaustive list, isotope analysis is commonly employed. Carbon 13, or C13, is a stable isotope utilized to determine the proportions of different types of plant material consumed. It can also aid in determining the consumption of marine (sea based) versus terrestrial (in-land based) food in a person’s diet. Carbon 14, or C14, is an unstable isotope used in a process commonly known as radio-carbon dating.  C14 is a radioactive isotope present in organic material, and it has a predictable half-life. By measuring the amount of C14 left in bone, and comparing that to the known rate of decay, we can determine approximately how many years ago an individual died. 

As personal example, I examined skulls for evidence of brain tumours from skeletal collections dating from Medieval and post-Medieval periods in England.  It’s not a disease that is commonly found, or searched for, in skeletal collections.  My research indicated that more than 10% of the large skeletal collections showed evidence of brain tumours, a relatively shocking number.  Keep in mind, these were not necessarily terminal, or even malignant, tumours.  But it provided an unexpected answer, and certainly raised more questions that could be important for medical considerations in today’s populations.

Ubeklaker 1978 Adult Skeleton.JPG

To bring it closer to home, there is an archaeological burial site east of Kamloops that some readers may be familiar with: Gore Creek Man.  This man’s remains were found eroding out of the creek bank several decades ago.  Through a series of studies we were able to learn a great deal both about this individual man, but also the wider group of First Nations people that lived in the Thompson valley at the time. 

Through inventory and analysis, we learned that Gore Creek man was in his late 20s or early 30s when he died, was approximately 5’6” tall, and that he likely perished in a mud slide or flash flood before coming to rest in the creek channel.  C13 studies told us that he had an almost totally terrestrial diet, although there were enough marine markers to indicate he had eaten sea-food at some point in his life – likely from spawning salmonid species in the river.  Perhaps most remarkably, C14 studies showed that Gore Creek man lived, and died, more than 8,000 years ago, an almost unfathomable number.  But it aligns with what First Nations people have told though oral histories; that they have lived here for time immemorial.

There is not enough space here to start a discussion about the ethics and cultural sensitivities surrounding the science of studying human remains, and there are as many opinions about what the ‘right’ thing to do is as there are individuals involved in the study of osteology.  Whatever the opinion however, there is indeed a great deal to be learned from our ancestors.