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Conversations: Bone Reader Volume 58 Number 5, September/October 2005

A bioarchaeology pioneer on the hidden truths in our skeletons

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For more than 30 years, Jane Buikstra has been at the forefront of bioarchaeology, a disclipline that mines bone for data on age, health, diet, disease, and genetic relationships. Now the director of the new Center for Biological Research at Arizona State University, Buikstra spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY about teeth, tuberculosis, and showing medical examiners a thing or two.

(Photo by Jason King)

You're credited with coining the term "bioarchaeology."
Well, in 1976 I tossed it off at a conference. Recently I had to be reminded it was me. I called a former student to ask her who had coined it, and she said, "As far as I know, you did."

What are some of the questions bioarchaeology can answer?
One that is fairly central to our field right now is, how long did people live? For a long time, our picture has been that many people, such as hunter-gatherers, had a shorter life span than ours. But we may have that picture because we haven't had the tools to assess length of life among older adults.

You can now accurately age someone older than 50 years?
Yes, to any great degree. Bones age at different rates due to genetics and lifestyle.

What is a new tool available for calculating age?
Like all mammals, we have a cycle of formation of rings around the tooth root called cementum annuli that form annually. You can section the tooth vertically or horizontally and actually just count [the rings].

As with dendrochronology? Like you would do with a tree?
Sure, very similar.

Archaeologists often tap you for answers about age, health, diet, or genetic relationship. Is that how you came to work at the Classic Maya site of Palenque?
At Palenque, the issue was the age of the ruler Pakal. In the 1950s, when archaeologists found his tomb, they estimated his age at 40 to 50. But epigraphers said that the inscriptions suggested he lived to be about 80. We were able to show that the epigraphers were right.

You're also well known for your work in Peru with the paleopathologist Arthur Aufderheide.
In Peru we studied a pathology that shows up in remains in A.D. 800 to 900. It causes holes in the vertebra, and then the spine collapses. It looked like bone tuberculosis. At that time, in the mid 1990s, the texts said TB originated from cattle in the Old World. From our autopsy on one mummy we were able to isolate a genetic signal for TB. Cattle seem to have gotten the disease from us.

Can you get information that applies to modern people?
Yes. Biomolecular work on diet can be very important to contemporary groups. Some native populations, for example, are interested in knowing if their diabetes rates have popped up because of a change from a traditional diet.

As a member of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, you are called in by medical examiners to consult on human remains. What can you say that a medical examiner can't?
Having handled thousands and thousands of human remains, we can talk about blunt-force trauma, time of death, bone weathering, estimate age of death and sex. The diversity of humankind, the minute detail that we regularly recover--it's not within the ME's province to have that much detail.

And medical examiners generally work with far more recent remains than physical anthropologists do, right?
Oh, no. We often work with very recent human remains. The classic example is in Florida. If a body is wrapped in plastic and left in the sun for three weeks, the soft tissue will be gone. And in the desert you get mummified material. Within a season or a year, you will need to call in a specialist.

What are your plans at the Center for Biological Research?
I'm bringing in bioarchaeologists with different topical expertise. They're young, so we can have that energy and vitality. These are interesting times in my life.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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