Human osteology is a detailed, scientific study of the composite structure of human bones, exploring the basic skeletal frame, analysis of teeth, diagnosis of disease, and in particular the identification of classifications dealing with sex, age, size, development, and termination of the original living person.
Seeing the Living by Studying the Dead
Human remains offer an invaluable perspective into ancient life by providing an amalgamated record of human biology within its cultural setting and geological and social environment. Analysis of ancient human skeletal remains can demonstrate the degree that these broad environmental factors impacted on the individual and how that individual adapted or survived within that environment. The osteologist is looking for patterns of life within the relics of death.
There are basically two approaches to human bone identification. One system is to define the bones by type. The human skeleton has four main bone shapes.
- Long Bones – These are found in the arms and legs including the femur, tibia, humerus and radius. They are characteristically strong, tubular, and shaft-like with joints at each end.
- Short Bones – Similar in all ways to the long bones, short bones also are tubular shafts and articular at each end. They are naturally smaller and include all of the metacarpals, metatarsals, and the phalanges in both hands and feet.
- Flat Bones – These are thin, broad-surfaced bones that include all of the rib bones, sternum, and scapula.
- Irregular Bones – Basically, anything not categorised above is known as irregular. Spread throughout the skeleton they are usually small and vary in size and shape.
Another approach to bone analysis concentrates on the physiology of the whole person rather than the individual bone. In this system the osteologist attempts to define specifics such as, but not limited to, age, gender, health, diet, and cause of death.
Determining the age of a young individual from analysis of their remains is usually a precise estimation and can be relied on due to clear demarcations during the growth and development phases of life. Assessment of individuals who have reached their growth extreme, who have their permanent adult teeth, and who display no signs of age-relative illness are more difficult to accurately age. Osteologists mainly rely on observations from the degeneration of the bones in older subjects.
Osteologists admit that they are only ever about 90% accurate when assessing human skeletal remains. A complete skeleton is a rare find and provides no challenge to gender identification. However, it is more likely that only single bones or bone fragments are available to be scrutinized. Comparitive analysis using the standard osteological markers for the skull, upper frame, and pelvis often yield a valid determination of an adult specimen. There is also a very marked increase in the robusticity of human male bones compared to those of more gracile females.
Cause of Death
Survival of any species is usually based on how well the community is able to adapt to fundamental changes in their environment. The way in which an individual adjusts to new biological (food), social (governmental), or geological (natural) factors will often dictate their mortality. An inability or unwillingness to change diet once the traditional sources of food diminish will severely impact on morbidity. A dramatic overrun of social governance due to war or civil commotion will leave a trail of evidence upon the bones of the deceased.
Everything is Examined
The analysis of well-preserved human remains is likened to the archaeological excavation itself. Complete and thorough analysis will involve examination by x-ray, cross-sectioning of bone materials, dissection to recover possible internal organs or the contents of the stomach. All excavated material remains are examined whether anatomical, digested or undigested food remains, or fibrous particles from external garments.
Osteology is a forensic branch of human anatomy and is immersed in medical jargon and terminology. A pathology report from an osteologist describing human bone remains from an archaeological excavation site can read like a complex medical journal. “Skeletal Remains Item #20785 exhibited adjustment consistent with a seronegative spondylo-arthropathy, in particular ankylosing spondylitis.”