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. kate.domett@jcu.edu.au 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”.

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 9.59.26 pm

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.

474610_10151344355967437_48598741_o

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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 9.17.59 pm.png

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

New volume of Childhood in the Past is out now! — sscip

The new volume (9.1) for Childhood in the Past has just been released. Please click the journal link here. Eileen Murphy has provided an editorial that summarises recent SSCIP activities and events, and the great line-up of papers in this volume (below) Editorial Eileen M. Murphy Welcome to the spring issue of Volume nine of […]

via New volume of Childhood in the Past is out now! — sscip

Is this really a 5,000 year old mother and baby?

A recent story of a 4,800-year-old ‘mother’ cradling a baby has been pulling at the heart strings of people worldwide with sensationalist headlines such as “Mother’s enduring love for baby revealed as 5000-year-old fossil found” and “Fossil of 5000-year-old mother cradling baby found in Taiwan”. But is this story everything it’s really cracked up to be?

An archeological team working at a Neolithic site near the city of Taichung since 2014 has unearthed “48 sets of remains”, presumably the number of individual graves, representing the earliest burial site in Taiwan. One of these burials has been described as a mother and baby. However, the news accounts provide little information as to why the researchers believe this to be the case, apart from the placement of the baby with the adult female and the turning of her head to be “looking at her baby” (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 4.44.59 pmFigure 1: The 4800-year-old “mother and baby” found in Taiwan (source: Reuters)

It is likely that if a female and newborn baby is found in a burial context that they died during childbirth (see my earlier post on fetuses in archaeology). Childbirth is the most critical time for both a mother and baby. This has even led some archaeologists to argue that higher mortality rates of young adult females compared with males represent the hazards of childbirth in the past.

The baby has been described as a foot and a half (about 46 cms), which is about the size of a newborn baby. However, looking at the photos and the videos from the news stories the baby looks too big to be a newborn. The only bones present seem to be from the waist-up. Looking at the relative size of the hands of the archaeologist cleaning the bones and the upper body of the baby (Figure 2), it may be that the size cited is for the upper body, supporting that the infant is older than a newborn. It is difficult to see the cranial bones to assess their development to infer an age-at-death. The cranial bones look thicker than a newborn, but it is unclear as it appears there is some concreted soil adhering to the surface of the bones. Given that this infant seems older than a newborn it is unlikely that they were mother and child.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 2.47.40 pmFigure 2: Archaeologist cleaning the ‘mother-baby’ burial (photo: Reuters video).

In a small Neolithic community there may have been some kind of relationship between the adult female and the infant, or they may have only been buried together because their deaths coincided. Using a cross cultural example, in the Anglican burial tradition babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).

To assess if there is a biological relationship between this purported mother-baby pair, ancient DNA analyses could be undertaken, but this is difficult with preservation issues in tropical contexts. We should also keep in mind that a mother-child relationship is not always biological.

The fact that the adult female had her head turned to her left may be the result of the burial environment, as some bones can shift in open spaces such as coffins, or from the weight of soil on the bones. Further research looking at the positions of the bone could give more insight on the mode of burial.

We will have to await the scientific presentation of the findings from this site to evaluate the likelihood for this purported mother and baby.

Amazing baby bone facts I: What happens during childbirth

Ever wondered why some newborn babies heads are oblong, resembling ‘cone heads’ after birth and then go back to normal? It is obvious that babies heads are under an enormous amount of pressure during birth, and this is especially so in humans. But how does the actual moulding of the head occur? A newborn baby’s skull bones can move during birth because of the soft tissue between them making the skeletal anatomy somewhat flexible and malleable (figure 1). There are some larger areas of soft tissue between the bones in the front and back portions of the skull called fontanelles.

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 8.17.44 am

Figure 1: Childbirth head moulding. From http://keckmedicine.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=117&pid=1&gid=002270

During birth these spaces between the bones allow the baby’s head to change shape. Depending on the amount and length of pressure, the skull bones may even overlap. This overlapping can produce a variety of shapes of the skull from a pointed to a flattened shape (figure 2). This normal moulding generally goes away in a matter of days.

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 8.12.54 am

Figure 2: Normal variations of head moulding. From: http://www.open.edu/openlearnworks/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=272&printable=1

These spaces between the bones also allow for the growth of the brain throughout infancy and childhood.

Snap-shots of research: mortuary and biological analyses of fetal, infant and child bodies in Roman Egypt

This month I have the pleasure of showcasing the bioarchaeological work that Dr Sandra Wheeler is doing with fetuses, infants and children in Egypt. Dr. Wheeler is a bioarchaeologist with research expertise in juvenile osteology and mortuary archaeology with a regional focus in ancient Egyptian populations. She is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in the United States.

K2 sandra excavating

Dr Wheeler excavating a juvenile burial from the Kellis 2 cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt.

Tell me a little bit about your work:

As a bioarchaeologist, I am particularly interested in the synthesis of information gained from the study of the human body as it relates to adaptations and interrelations among the biocultural and natural environments from archaeological contexts. Infants and children are sensitive indicators of environmental and cultural change, so the direct analyses of children’s skeletons and dentitions, as well as the stressors that affected their bodies, provide a unique window into human adaptation to various environments. This, in combination with analyses of mortuary practices, can shed light on cultural ideas of personhood, and child status and agency in past societies. My research aims to interpret patterns of infant and child health and disease to understand the age and risk factors associated with child morbidity and mortality, culture change, and treatment and placement of child bodies at death.

How did you get into your field and why?

I initially began with studies in Mesoamerican archaeology and came to focus on studies of the human skeleton during my Master’s degree. I didn’t know what bioarchaeology was or what it entailed but I knew I wanted to study the human skeleton within its archaeological context. I became interested in the juvenile skeleton and had the wonderful opportunity to illustrate The Osteology of Infants and Children with Brenda Baker, Tosha Dupras, and Matthew Tocheri. This experience strengthened and focused my research interests in juvenile osteology specifically and the archaeology of childhood more broadly. I completed my PhD in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario in Canada under the direction of Christine White with a focus on bioarchaeology, juvenile osteology and paleopathology, and a regional focus in ancient Egypt. I have been fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues interested in the bioarchaeology of childhood with whom I continue to collaborate and publish. I have had the privilege to conduct fieldwork and publish bioarchaeological research from ancient Egyptian contexts, work that I hope to continue in the future.

K2 analysisDr Wheeler analyzing juvenile skeletal remains excavated from the Kellis 2 cemetery in Egypt.

What is on the future horizon for your research?

I am particularly interested in the full integration of juveniles within bioarchaeological research frameworks, whenever possible. The life course approach is a valuable one for researching trends in stress and disease through time and the risk factors associated with various life stages. I will continue to collaborate with my bioarchaeology colleagues to tease out individual life-histories through the analyses of multiple tissues to better understand the relationships among maternal health, infant survivability, and adult health outcomes, such as the biological and social risk factors for metabolic and infectious diseases.

b.600 3

An example of a juvenile burial from Kellis 2.

Selected publications:

Bleuze, MM, Wheeler, SM, Williams, LJ, Dupras, TL. 2016. Growth of the Pectoral Girdle in a Sample of Juveniles from the Kellis 2 Cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. American Journal of Human Biology. Early View Article first published online: Feb 2016. DOI:10.1002/ajhb.22844. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajhb.22844/abstract

Dupras TL, Wheeler SM, Williams LJ, Sheldrick PG. 2015. Birth in Ancient Egypt: Timing, Trauma, and Triumph? Evidence from the Dakhleh Oasis. In (S Ikram, J Kaiser, R Walker, Eds) Egyptian Bioarchaeology: Human, Animals, and the Environment. Sidestone Academic Press, Leiden pp. 53-65. http://www.sidestone.com/library/egyptian-bioarchaeology

Wheeler SM, Williams L, Beauchesne P, Dupras TL. 2013. Shattered Lives and Broken Childhoods: Evidence of Physical Child Abuse in Ancient Egypt. International Journal of Paleopathology, 3: 71-82. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2013.03.009

Wheeler SM. 2012. Nutritional and Disease Stress of Juveniles from the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 22(2): 219-234. Article first published online: 2010. DOI: 10.1002/oa.1201.

Wheeler SM, Williams LJ, Dupras TL, Tocheri MW, Molto JE. 2011. Childhood in Roman Egypt: Bioarchaeology of the Kellis 2 Cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. In (M Lally and Alison Moore, Eds.) (Re)Thinking the Little Ancestor: New Perspectives on Infancy and Childhood. Archaeopress, Oxford, pp. 110-121.

Baker BJ, Dupras TL, Tocheri MW. 2005. The Osteology of Infants and Children. Illustrations by SM Wheeler. Texas A&M University Press: College Station.

 

 

 

Short interviews with SSCIP members: Dr Kirsty Squires — sscip

A recent interview that I did with osteoarchaeologist Dr Kirsten Squires for the SSCIP website. Kirsten’s work centres on the treatment of infants and children in the past.

Our interviewee is Dr Kirsty Squires, who is a Lecturer in Osteoarchaeology in the Department of Forensic and Crime Science at Staffordshire University (UK). She has been a member of the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past since 2011 and is the society’s outreach officer. Tell me a little bit about your … Continue reading Short interviews with SSCIP members: Dr Kirsty Squires

via Short interviews with SSCIP members: Dr Kirsty Squires — sscip

Bacterial bioerosion of bone may help identify stillborn infants from the past

New research using novel microscopic investigation of bacterial bioerosion of archaeological bone has shown that you can differentiate between stillborn and post-newborn babies. This was most exciting to me as offering a means to contribute to the debate of the interpretation of infanticide in the past, through an investigation of time of death.

Bioerosion is the removal of mineralised substrate through the action of organisms, and has been found to be the most common form of microbial attack of archaeological bone (Figure 1). The author of this new research, Tom Booth from the Natural History Museum, notes that although it was once believed that soil bacteria caused most of this bioerosion in bone, it is the gut microbia that is responsible for corpse putrification that causes this process. Based on the findings that it is the bacteria inside the body that produces this bioerosion, the author thought that this could be useful for assessing different mortuary treatments of the body.

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 9.06.06 pm

Figure 1: Transmitted light micrograph of a human fresh bone transverse femoral thin section (top) demonstrating perfect microstructural preservation and a typical archaeological femoral section (bottom) where the internal microstructure has been extensively altered by bacteria (from Booth et al., 2015).

To investigate if there is any relationship between bacterial bone bioerosion and funerary treatment, Booth undertook a microscopic analysis of human bones from European prehistoric (4000 B.C. – A.D. 43) and British historical (A.D. 43 – present day) sites. These two assemblages were used as they have been found to have different funerary practices, with the historic period sites practicing burial soon after death, whereas the prehistoric sites have more variable mortuary practices, sometimes including postmortem modification. E.g. Booth and colleagues’ work that found evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain using this microscopic method has recently received media attention.

This research shows that irrespective of burial environment, including antiquity or soil type, there was immaculate histological preservation of almost half of the neonatal samples. This is interpreted as the result of sterility of stillborn infant intestinal tracts resulting in the bones being unaffected by the process of bacterial tunneling. In addition, most (12/15) of the unbioeroded newborn samples are from historical cemeteries where most of the other samples had been extensively bioeroded. A previous experimental study by White and Booth using pigs found that bone from stillborn neonatal carcasses had immaculate histological preservation due to the intrinsic sterility of newborn infant intestinal tracts.

Booth found that the soil type had no relationship with bacterial bioerosion. There was evidence for variation in bacterial bioerosion among the later prehistoric assemblages argued to be “consistent with the knowledge that these individuals were subject to variable early post mortem treatment that exposed the bones to diverse levels of bacterial attack.” Bacterial bioerosion in the historical assemblage was high, consistent with that expected within bones of intact bodies that had been interred soon after death.

The use of this novel method to differentiate stillborn vs post-newborn infants can contribute to extending our knowledge of the cause of death during the most crucial time for mother and child in the past, and may also have useful applications for the study of cultural beliefs around stillbirth and post-neonatal death.

References:

Booth, T. J., A. T. Chamberlain and M. P. Pearson (2015). “Mummification in Bronze Age Britain.” Antiquity 89(347): 1155-1173.