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To sum up

The challenges faced by doing these kinds of summaries include the tendency to oversimplify the life situations of these ancient Americans instead of appreciating the coexisting realities and complexities present in their everyday lives. At the same time that people experienced celebrations, marriages, and births, there was also danger, uncertainty, and suffering due to climate change, warfare, and resource depletion. Based on their material culture, it is clear that there were systems of knowledge in place regarding agriculture, medicine, astronomy, math, philosophy, metaphysics, and economics, to name but a few. Cultures differ in basic and in subtle ways; their patterns of thinking, logic, perception, construction of social categories, their goals and values, ideals, morals, and general psychology. Learned ideologies provide deep structures that underlie these patterns. Every culture has specific rules about what is appropriate to eat and how to behave. Almost all of these things must be inferred using the bioarchaeological and archaeological findings. Therefore, the data presented in this chapter on adults are only modest and incomplete vignettes offered to better understand what it was like to be an adult in ancient cultures of America.

And in focusing on health, it is important to keep in mind that we are not talking about a Western experience of disease and illness in which physicians can dispense powerful medications such as aspirin, antibiotics, and antidiarrheal tonics. None of the dead can rise and answer our questions about what they were able to utilize in their natural environment for medicines. But from all that they have left behind, their imperishable home artifacts and gear along with bits and pieces of themselves can be used to provide broad brushstrokes about what their lives were like.

This chapter has covered a lot of material, both in terms of geographical and temporal variation but also in terms of cultural dynamics over time. Adulthood is an important time frame to study, and it tends to be the focus of many bioarchaeological analyses. This is likely for several reasons: (1) adult remains tend to be the most highly mineralized and therefore preserve better than the bones of the very young or the very old; (2) they tend to form the majority of those individuals recovered during the course of excavations, particularly ifjuveniles are buried according to different burial customs; and (3) they are useful in understanding elements of childhood, particularly in the identification of childhood stress, and so they are typically used for the analysis of multiple life stages.

The studies for the core areas represent a very small fraction of the published and unpublished literature that is available on disease and ancient Americans, but we were careful to select those that we felt had the strongest cases for seeing patterns. It is useful to know that common and highly prevalent microorganisms that cause illness do initiate changes in the morphology of bone tissue, such as anemia, staph and strep infections, respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal problems, and diarrhea.

Patterns of death and disease are not random occurrences. They are intimately linked to every facet of lifestyle from diet and climate to occupation, social structure, and religion (Wells 1964: 87). Although death is the ultimate indicator of maladaptation, its timing and its patterning within populations reveal a variety of challenges in the physical and social environment. By focusing on multiple indicators of stress combined with the ecological and cultural context the adult health profiles presented here reveals important aspects of life in the ancient world.

 
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