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Using biocultural data to disrupt stereotypes

Historically, human remains were often analyzed without reference to their cultural context. Context in this sense refers to both the specific site and the artifactual associations of a burial at the time of discovery, and it refers to the specifics of the particular culture from which the burial comes. Human remains and burials are often used for dramatic effect in popular science magazines such as National Geographic and Discovery. Individuals lacking interest or experience in archaeological context who attempt to draw inferences from burials are frequently unaware of the necessity of such context and make interpretations. The biological facts of the burial seldom tell the whole story. One such error in the literature on southwestern paleopathology, written by medical physicians, erroneously identified the bark hood of ancient cradleboards (pallet to which infants are bound for ease in transportation) as therapeutic corsets (Carlson and Armelagos 1965). The implication of that faulty interpretation was that advanced medical knowledge existed and prophylactics were utilized. In a review of the archaeological context within which the bark hoods were found, Carlson and Armelagos were able to show a strong association of the hoods with infant burials and with cradleboard practices that persisted from ancient to historic times (Figure 2.1).

During the 1950s, reports began to surface that suggested that modern Indian rates of infant mortality (death) and adult morbidity (illness) were very high and disproportionate to the rates for the general U.S. population (Moore et al. 1972). For one group, the Navajo, preventable or controllable diseases, such as infections, tuberculosis, diabetes, and alcoholism, were carefully documented. The patterns of

Example of a cradleboard. “Apache babe in carrier” by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1903. Public Domain, Library of Congress, Digital ID cph.3b43191, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FIGURE 2.1 Example of a cradleboard. “Apache babe in carrier” by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1903. Public Domain, Library of Congress, Digital ID cph.3b43191, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

illness and death attributed to those and other diseases were shown to be alarmingly high when compared to non-Indian rates and were similar to those for less developed and poorer nations (Kunitz 1983). Many stereotypes emerged about Native Americans and their vulnerability to poverty and disease that persist even today.

In the absence of empirical data, it has been common to visualize the ancient past as a scaled-down version of the modern counterpart. For example, Colton uses these images of the ancient Southwest inhabitants garnered from his experience of living with Hopi Indians in the 1920s. He wrote that “families live close together, and the excreta are deposited in the narrow plazas, streets, middens and passages near the houses . . . water is contaminated from excreta . . . infant mortality . . . is very great” (1936: 342) (Figure 2.2). Colton goes on to paint a picture of life in the village fraught with unsanitary practices and rampant disease. Using the present to imagine the past, Colton suggested that ancient village life must have also been

Historic Hopi village

FIGURE 2.2 Historic Hopi village. Archaeologists working in the Southwest in the 1930s often visited these villages to imagine what the past must have been like because there is cultural continuity from ancient to modern times. Adapted from the original “Indian Pueblo Housetop” by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1906. Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

fraught with disease and sickness. Again, in the absence of empirical data, stereotypic notions about ancient, historic, and modern people are created in a vacuum.

Titiev (1972), a cultural anthropologist living in a Hopi village in 1933, repeatedly mentions the unsanitary conditions and poor general health of many of the inhabitants as well, but he related contemporary attitudes about health and sickness to earlier ancestral conditioning to such a lifestyle. Colton felt that because people living within Indian reservations in the U.S. were suffering at higher levels than the general U.S. population, that they must have been sick in the past as well. In contrast to this, Titiev thought that it was because they were sick in the past and, colonized in the present, they were sick today. Titiev saw health more as a consequence of the past. Colton’s and Titiev’s observations are relevant for our understanding of both the contemporary experience, as well as for ancient peoples, but they had no empirical data with which to test these hypotheses. Ultimately they both were wrong about how disease works, and both contributed to the formulation of various stereotypes about Native Americans. Bioarchaeology offers a solution to this problem by providing scientific data from the biological remains that can be used to test hypotheses about what the past was like.

Without understanding disease within a broadly chronological, ecological, cultural, and historical perspective, it is problematic to rely solely on ethnographic analogies or analogues of the present to explain the past. Generalizations about ancient people are seen everywhere from commercials for the paleodiet (www. to websites extolling the virtues of living as our ancestors did in balanced harmony with nature (www.mindbodygreen. com/0-14051/10-reasons-you-should-eat-move-live-like-your-ancestors.html). These are largely based on stereotypes of what people think the ancestors’ lives were like. These stereotypes are difficult to dismantle, even when there is evidence to disprove them or to suggest that there was more complexity and nuance involved in living and surviving in ancient times.

One of the major goals of this text is to present a wealth of empirical data so that ancestral lifestyles can be envisioned in a way that is more in line with the complex and varied interpretations derived from bioarchaeological data on what life was like. Bioarchaeological data support that while there were some groups that experienced good health, there were also groups for which illness, disease, trauma, injury, and early death were the defining features during some parts of their long histories.

Paleopathology data from ancient societies permit a reevaluation of another entrenched idea regarding indigenous people and their knowledge and understanding of complex ecological systems. For example, an American archaeologist working in the southwestern regions in the 1915 stated that “originally there existed a delicate natural balance which, as long as it remained undisturbed, permitted the land to be vastly more productive than it is today” (Morris 1939: 6). These sentiments are still around. Embedded even deeper in these ideas rests the assumptions that politics, economics, and ideology were de-emphasized or nonoperational in ancient times. Krech (1999) explored what he called the myth of the ecological Indian, and later Harkin and Lewis (2007) provided case studies that demonstrated that there was variability in different tribal groups in terms of their use and manipulation of natural resources and that no singular idea fits every ancient group.

Without data about the effects of environmental change and cultural processes on morbidity and mortality, it is easy to have simplistic and stereotypic scenarios presented that become part of what people think when the precolonial history of indigenous people is discussed. Without data, it is difficult to test hypotheses regarding a range of relevant factors such as the availability of food and resources, the ability to respond and adapt to environmental changes, or the relationship between disease and social structure.

Beyond the stereotypes about ancient people, Native American scholars have also criticized the treatment of human remains by bioarchaeologists (Deloria 1989). With the passage of NAGPRA legislation and better ethical treatment of human remains, there are now collaborative projects between bioarchaeologists and Native Americans. As pointed out by West (1993), the former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, biological remains represent a database with the potential to bring important information to Native Americans. In an attempt to rectify certain misunderstandings (on all sides) of what the potential of biological data are, bioarchaeology as a field of study now strives to integrate human remains into research programs in ways that are responsive to Native American concerns and useful in overturning myths and dismantling stereotypes.

Human remains represent a uniquely rich data set for a wide range of investigations emanating from subdisciplines such as archaeology, biological anthropology, forensic medicine, disease ecology, and public health. As seen earlier, human remains are also highly contested by descendant groups. It begs the questions, Why bother to study human remains? Why is it important to use ancient skeletal remains to document patterns of health and disease for indigenous groups, especially when conditions for people living today in marginalized areas is arguably more pressing? and Why not concentrate efforts on people living today because the need there is so great? The reply is that often the ultimate cause of poor health and maladaptation is not proximally located; rather, it is an “upstream” manifestation of a situation displaced temporally and/or spatially (McKinlay and McKinlay 1974). Furthermore, bioarchaeologists have the methods to extract information about the past that encompass environmental, cultural, and biological factors. Disease can be located in time and space, and an examination of the interrelatedness of ecological, behavioral, and biological variables can be made (Goodman et al. 1984; Larsen

1987). Studying the long and deep human history of disease provides unique and valuable perspectives on disease today, and therein may lie ways to prevent disease (Tishkoff and Verrelli 2003).

Disease has certainly affected the course of human history (Zuckerman et al. 2012). It has only been through the bioarchaeological record that researchers have come to understand how changes over time in environment, political and economic structure, subsistence and diet, and settlement patterns can and do have profound effects on population structure and rates of morbidity and mortality. A particularly commanding set of examples for this can be found in the volume Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (Cohen and Armelagos 1984), which focuses on the changes in health related to shifts in subsistence economy in many different locales around the world.

In summary, bioarchaeology offers a dimensional, nuanced, and complex way of thinking about ancient people and their well-being and helps to make connections between the past and the present. In this way, simplistic or stereotypic understandings about the groups living long ago can be disrupted and replaced with a more nuanced way of thinking about the people who came before us. The linking of demographic, biological, and cultural processes within an ecological context is essential for dealing with the kinds of questions that interest archaeologists and biological anthropologists today. These include understanding the relationship between political centralization and illness, the impact of population reorganization or collapse on mortality, and the relationship between social stratification, differential access to resources, and health. These kinds of problems demand a multidimensional approach because they cross over numerous disciplinary boundaries.

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