New newsletter issue out on Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific

Recent bioarchaeological research in Southeast Asia and the Pacific featured here.

Edited by Associate Professor Kate Domett, James Cook Unversity, Australia. This 2016 newsletter features the latest reports on bioarchaeology fieldwork in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and the Philippines. There are also some detailed summaries of two recent conferences – ‘For the Love of Death’, held in the Philippines and the SEAMEA SPAFA meeting recently held […]

via Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Newsletter 2016 Issue 12 — Southeast Asia & Pacific Bioarchaeology

Alien from the Atacama: What baby osteology can tell you

Numerous alien and conspiracy theories have been put forward in the past to explain archaeological finds. One such example that has gained significant media attention is the partially mummified human fetus given the name “Ata” after being found in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile in 2003. The alien theories and human growth disorder theories that have been put forward are based on the purported unusual skeletal and soft tissue morphology. In 2013, it was reported by geneticist Garry Nolan that the DNA analyses supports that the individual is human. However at this same time it was reported that Ralph Lachman (clinical pediatric radiologist) claimed the skeletal biology was not human-like, citing numerous observations, including “the high level of calcification observed in the legs suggested it was more likely a child between the ages of five and eight years old”.

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Figure 1: Naturally mummified fetus from the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile.

Recently I was approached by a researcher, let’s call him Mr X, who was producing a report from his re-examination of the Atacama specimen. When Mr X asked my opinion to be used in his report he didn’t supply me with any primary data to base my analyses on, so my preliminary observations were based on photos I could find online. Prior to my correspondence with Mr X my colleague based in the UK was asked to comment on the specimen from an ancient DNA perspective. Although the draft report that Mr X emailed for my comments after I had given my preliminary observations concludes that this individual is most likely a human fetus, which I agree with, I was dismayed with a number of things.

Firstly, in this report draft, my colleague’s comments were taken out of context and severely criticized, and included in the report without consent. Perhaps this was because my colleague declined to be sucked into spending precious time and several thousand pounds (things that are not plentiful for scientists these days!) on aDNA analyses of the individual. I should note that my colleague was not worried about Mr X’s criticism of him, but it raised alarm bells for me.

The second issue, and one that I want to discuss here is the lack of proper osteological analyses and reporting, which reminded me somewhat of Dr Kristina Killgrove’s Who Needs an Osteologist installments. Mr X asked me to comment on Mr Z’s (human anatomist and embryologist) interpretations of his findings before writing the report. Mr X advised me to keep the report confidential, as this was being prepared for the private ‘owner’ of the remains based in Spain. The ownership of archaeological remains is problematic in itself. While Mr X had perfectly valid interpretations, a human osteologist’s input is needed for valid scientific analyses of human bone, methodological description and interpretations of the findings. I saw no explanation of age estimation methods, no reference to any human osteological developmental texts, and no inclusion of any studies of mummified soft tissues. As well as bad reporting, Mr X did not acknowledge my input into his findings.

Although I am not going to release the contents of the report, I want to share with you some of my communications with Mr X. Here are some of my explanations of previous biological ‘anomalies’ argued to exist in the Atacama specimen.

1st ‘anomaly’: The 11th and 12th pair of ribs seem to be missing in the radiographs.

My response: The ribs may not be visible in a radiograph as the 11th and 12th ribs are smaller ‘floating’ ribs in that they do not articulate anteriorly at the sternum, are not as robust, and are shorter that the other ribs. There is little information about the formation of ribs in-utero and the timing of the primary centres of ossification (where they first start forming as bone). Initial formation of the 5th-8th ribs start at about 8th-9th weeks in-utero (Scheuer and Black 2000: 238). Scheuer and Black (2000: 238) also state that “by the eleventh and twelfth weeks of intra-uterine life, each rib (often with the exception of the twelfth)”, which implies that the lower ribs are later forming, so may not be as visible in a radiograph.

2nd ‘anomaly’: The seemingly advanced stage of epyphiseal union of the femur, suggesting an age of 5-10 years.

[epiphyseal fusion refers to when the shaft of the bone and the extremity fuse together when the bone stops growing in length]

My response: The statement of the advance stage of epiphyseal fusion is incorrect. If there was fusion/union at the distal femur (which I am assuming they are talking about) this would suggest an adolescent, and thus older than 5-10 years. Regardless of this error in age estimation from epiphyseal fusion methods, I do not see evidence for union on the radiograph online – where is the ‘density’ that they are referring to? There is no ossification of the epiphyses (the unfused extremities of the femora or tibiae) to suggest that fusion of the diaphyses (shaft) and the epiphyses (extremity) would be possible. These bones and the development of these bones all look normal from my observations of the photos and radiographs online.

3rd ‘anomaly’: The epiphyseal plate x-ray density test for age determination suggested an age of 6-8 years old.

My response: This type of age estimation is problematic, and I don’t know any bioarchaeologist or forensic anthropologist who uses the method described. This can’t be applied to mummified remains if it relies on water density.

This is no alien. This was the result of a mother losing her baby early during her pregnancy in the past in South America.


Figure 2: My archaeologist colleague on our trip to an archaeological site in Arica region, Atacama desert, Chile.

Also see my post on human fetuses in the past here.

Recent Southeast Asian bioarchaeological research showcased

Recently a bioarchaeological paper on a Southeast Asian sample that I was an author was rejected by an international biological anthropology journal. Although the reviewers deemed the paper to be scientifically sound the Academic Editor rejected it based on a subjective value judgement that the results weren’t “significant or new” and recommended that it would have been “more suitable for a regional journal”. I couldn’t help but think that if it was something from other parts of the Old World that it would have been published, and that the work we are doing in Southeast Asia is not seen as important, despite addressing issues of direct relevance to the international archaeological research community. Our paper was significant in extending knowledge on the nature of agricultural development and human stress response in a tropical rice based environment, which challenges the universally applied model of health change. Never mind that half the world’s population lives in rice subsistence based societies, nor what our work can inform on the epidemiology of disease in tropical environments, and the unique archaeological context of socio-political and agricultural development that our research can address.

So to turn this negative energy into something constructive, I thought that I would showcase some recent Southeast Asian bioarchaeological work that was presented at a panel that Marc Oxenham (Australian National University) and I organised at the recent Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO SPAFA) conference this week. The papers comprise some of the enlarging corpus of bioarchaeological work that is being done by local SE Asians and foreign researchers in the region (see also the recently edited volume The Routledge Handbook of Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands). Recent bioarchaeological research in Southeast Asia has been instrumental for illustrating variance to the internationally applied models of population biological response to agricultural development and intensification. There has been an increased interest in the bioarchaeological testing of explanatory models of the occupation of Mainland Southeast Asia, including a debate surrounding the suitability of the two-layered (replacement) settlement model, also of relevance to models of settlement in other parts of the world. Our session included papers with a range of methodological approaches including funerary analyses, dental and skeletal palaeopathology, isotopic analyses of diet and migration, and physical activity through entheseal (muscle attachment) changes.

The session commenced with work addressing broad issues of subsistence and natural and social environmental changes, and migration in the region. Marc Oxenham (co-authored with Anna Willis) started the session by interrogating what the ‘Neolithic’ in Southeast Asia means and asks the question of what influence farming in the region had on these communities and what implications this has for bioarchaeological interpretations. If populations are already sedentary and have high fertility and large settlement sizes, then would a pre- versus post-agricultural palaeopathological comparison be appropriate? I have also previously touched upon the issue of classification of sites into these categories here.

Charlotte King (University of Otago) then turned to a site-specific example of testing human variation during the agricultural transition using isotopic analyses to indicate diet and migration and geometric morphometrics as a genetic proxy from the prehistoric Thai site of Ban Non Wat. She did not find any definitive evidence for population replacement of the hunter-gatherer population by the early agriculturalists.

I presented a new biosocial model that is dovetailing the raft of archaeological and bioarchaeological evidence for a rapid socio-political and biological (‘health’) change in the Iron Age in the Upper Mun River Valley in northeast Thailand. By assessing the bioarchaeological evidence within an epidemiological context of the changing natural and social environment, we are starting to understand the changes of mortality and morbidity through transmission modes and the possible aetiologies of disease during this time.

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In light of the model of swift change in social organisation and corresponding biological changes that are being seen in the region at this time, Stacey Ward (PhD candidate, Otago) is investigating social organisation and its influence on physiological stress through growth disruption at the Thai Iron Age site of Non Ban Jak.

Rebecca Jones (PhD candidate, Australian National University) then presented on her research that is assessing zooarchaeological evidence for the change in subsistence using two Vietnamese archaeological assemblages, the pre-agricultural site of Con Co Ngua, and the agricultural site of Man Bac, Vietnam.

Korakot Boonlop (PhD candidate, Leicester) presented preliminary oral pathology data from the Neolithic site of Nong Ratchawat in West-central Thailand. Comparative analyses from other sites in the region from later periods will provide a means to assess the impact of oral health with the intensification of agriculture.

Several papers addressed issues of cultural processes on the living and the dead. Rebecca Crozier (University of the Philippines) presented some fascinating evidence for cranial modification from Cebu in the Philippines. This research is starting to look not only at the cultural aspects of this practice, but also the health implications that this modification can have on individuals.

Melandri Vlok (Honours graduate student, ANU) presented a contextualised interpretation of the bioarchaeology of care of an individual who had sustained major leg trauma at the Metal period site of Napa in the Philippines. This lead to some interesting discussions poolside after the session for the development of the bioarchaeology of care model being applied to infants and children in past societies.

Myra Lara (Graduate student, University of Philippines) showcased the diversity of archaeological mortuary treatment practices in prehistoric northern and central Philippines. Her analyses attempted to correlate mortuary treatment over time and space within the Philippines and other Islands within the wider region.

Two talks looked at evidence for activity in the past and interpreted them with wider archaeological and other contextual evidence. Dicky Caesario Wibowo (Masters student, University of Indonesia) presented his analyses of physical activity based on entheseal  changes from the late prehistoric site of Gilimanuk, Bali.

Sarah Agatha Villaluz (Graduate student, University of Philippines) assessed activity using entheseal changes in a sample from 18th century burial sites from the Philippines, and used historical and ethnographic evidence in her interpretation of possible habitual activities.

Other sessions at the conference also had biological anthropology papers, including a session on Ifugao archaeology and one on Palaeolithic archaeology.

Unfortunately a number of researchers not mentioned above couldn’t make it to our session because of the cost, which was especially prohibitive for Southeast Asian scholars. However, despite this, our session was one of the biggest at the conference, indicating the increased development of local expertise in the area. This success has stimulated me to start organising the next Southeast Asian Bioarchaeological Conference that we hope will be held in 2017. The last meeting was held in 2012 in Khon Kaen in Northeast Thailand and supported the attendance of over 70 delegates from 11 different countries. The main aim of these conferences are for the training and professional development of local students and academics in the field of bioarchaeology.


Photos courtesy SEAMEO-SPAFA