Bioarchaeology. Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Clark S. Larsen, Cambridge University Press, 1997. xii + 461 pp., 10 tables, 60 figures (44 b&w photographs). $85 (hardback). ISBN 0-521-48641-1.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Miller, Department of Anthropology, California State University – Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90032 USA

This volume was written as a result of Larsen’s involvement in a series of interdisciplinary research programs in the Southeastern and Southern United States. Larsen is a recognized authority on the subject of bioarchaeology, with several symposia, journal articles, and monographs (e.g. Larsen 1987; 1990a, b; 1994; Larsen and Milner 1994; Larsen and Ruff 1994; Larsen et al. 1996) to his credit; there is no doubt he has the credentials and expertise to prepare this informative, educational, and well-written synthesis of current information in the field of bioarchaeology. This volume, which represents to my knowledge one of the only comprehensive syntheses of bioarchaeological methods, techniques, and theory, will be useful both as a standard reference for professionals and as a textbook in advanced courses in bioarchaeology and the interpretation of human skeletal remains.

The book is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of bioarchaeology. The chapters are further divided into general sections and subsections; the format is easy to read and lends itself well to use as a textbook. The references cited will be useful in and of themselves to both students and professionals. All conditions and techniques are well-illustrated with examples from the literature and from the author’s own research. The conditions are discussed within a social and temporal framework as well, giving even the beginning student reader insight into their importance in the understanding of archaeological populations. Basic knowledge of human skeletal anatomy is required for full understanding of this text. A familiarity with some medical terminology and the basic concepts of disease will make the text easier to comprehend, and will allow the reader to come away from the book with a better understanding of bioarchaeology.

The first chapter gives the reader a basic introduction to the field, along with a history lesson of its development. This introduction sets the tone for the remainder of the book – although the drawbacks of each theory and technique are given, the message is clear: bioarchaeology is an up-and-coming field of study, and archaeologists and physical anthropologists must be made aware of the benefits to the study of archaeologically derived human skeletal remains.

Chapter 2 begins the "meat" of the book, with a discussion on stress and deprivation during childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. This chapter is concerned primarily with stress and deprivation during the growth process, and is divided into sections, including: Skeletal growth and development; dental growth and development; skeletal and dental pathological markers of deprivation; adult stress; and summary and conclusions. Subsections include topics such as: growth rates, cranial base height, long bone diaphyseal form, dental development rates, fluctuating and directional odontometric asymmetry, iron deficiency anemia (by far the longest subsection), dental micro- and macrodefects, and bone mass and histomorphometry

Chapter 3, titled "Exposure to infectious pathogens," is divided into the following sections: Dental caries; periodontal disease and tooth loss; nonspecific infection; and specific infectious diseases: trepanematosis, tuberculosis and leprosy. Again, each discussion is thorough and well thought out, and illustrated with many examples. Although dental caries is not often thought of in terms of a disease process, Larsen points out that it is, in fact, not the actual tooth lesion, but the process "characterized by focal demineralization of dental hard tissues by organic acids produced by bacterial fermentation of dietary carbohydrates, especially sugars" (pg. 65). Other conditions discussed in detail include periodontal disease, periostitis and osteomyelitis, and the three most common specific infectious diseases in the bioarchaeological literature, treponematosis, tuberculosis, and leprosy.

The fourth chapter, "Injury and violent death," includes the sections: accidental injury; intentional injury and interpersonal violence; medical care and surgical intervention; and interpreting skeletal trauma. The discussions of trauma are presented as case studies rather than as discussions of specific types of accidental and intentional injuries. Both accidental and intentional injury are discussed in a very general context first, and then specific injuries are discussed as part of case studies. While this may be the most efficient manner of presentation for Larsen’s data, I must admit that I found this chapter wider ranging, but less informative, than the others. This criticism aside, Larsen does a good job with the case studies, bringing in a wide variety of information, from Neandertals to Sudanese Nubians to the American Plains. Trends in accidental and intentional trauma are discussed in both the social and temporal context. The section on medical and surgical intervention was rather short, but within the 2.5 pages devoted to the subject were 14 references, each of which the reader might use to find additional information.

By far, in my opinion, the most important section of this chapter was "Interpreting skeletal trauma," the last section before the summary. In this section, Larsen pulls together information presented in the previous sections, and gives the reader insight into how the raw information may be interpreted in a broader context. For example, he discusses a decrease in intentional trauma in the Tombigbee Valley of Alabama. The coincidence of the decrease in intentional trauma and an increase in dispersion of human settlement and increased political centralization may be interpreted to show that a reduced circumscription of the population may have had an influence on conflict in this setting. This example illustrates not only how trauma may be used to make observations on a population level, but also how culture and biology must be considered equally in bioarchaeological interpretation.

In Chapter 5, "Activity patterns: 1. Articular and muscular modifications," Larsen goes back to the format used in Chapters 2 and 3. Sections include: Articular joints and their function; articular joint pathology; nonpathological articular modifications; and nonarticular pathological conditions relating to activity. Osteoarthritis is discussed in detail, along with the arguments within the scientific community regarding the use of the term in describing skeletal changes without the ability to describe changes in soft tissue. Population patterns are discussed, and compared. Nonarticular pathological conditions related to activity are also given thorough consideration by Larsen, who includes in this chapter discussions of interpretations of cortical defects, enthesopathies, and stress fractures such as spondylolysis. Nonpathological articular modifications receive a more cursory treatment in this chapter. Only the behaviors of squatting and kneeling, and the skeletal changes associated with these behaviors, are discussed. The literature on nonpathological articular modifications associated with specific behaviors is less well-known than that on enthesopathies and stress fractures; nevertheless, it was somewhat disappointing to see the rather superficial attention paid to the interpretation of behavior from nonpathological articular modifications.

Chapter 6, "Activity patterns: 2. Structural adaptation," begins with a thorough discussion of bone form and function, leading into sections on: Cross-sectional geometry; histomorphometric biomechanical adaptation; and behavioral inference from whole bone measurement. The author’s strength in the area of cross-sectional geometry is obvious in this chapter, with 22 of the chapter’s 31 pages devoted to the subject.

"Masticatory and nonmasticatory functions: craniofacial adaptation" is the title of the seventh chapter of Larsen’s text. Sections include: Cranial form and function; dental and alveolar changes; and dental wear and function. All aspects of cranial and dental form and function are discussed well; the treatment of dental macro- and microwear is especially well-done, to the extent that there are five pages discussing the severity of occlusal surface wear versus interproximal wear in numerous populations, in addition to a discussion of occlusal surface wear patterning across time, space, and social systems.

Isotopic and elemental analysis are treated in Chapter 8, "Isotopic and elemental signatures of diet and nutrition." This subject is often the most difficult for students to understand, in my experience, yet Larsen’s explanations are clear and concise. Isotopic analysis is separated by isotope, with subsections on stable carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and oxygen. Elemental analysis is separated into alkaline-earth elements (strontium and barium), multi-element analysis, and single-element analysis (iron, zinc, and lead). Methodological issues are treated somewhat lightly, with only one paragraph devoted exclusively to the topic, however, within each section methodological issues are also discussed.

Chapter 9, "Historical dimensions of skeletal variation: tracing genetic relationships," is primarily concerned with methods of establishing the relatedness of two or more skeletal populations. Sections include: Classes of biodistance data; biohistorical issues: temporal perspectives; biohistorical issues: spatial perspectives. For many bioarchaeologists, this information is among the most important, especially given the recent emphasis placed on the determination of biological affiliation made necessary by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. The information is presented in a clear and concise manner by Larsen, and again, many examples are given, both on the large scale (New World population origins, Europe, South and Central Asia, for example) and a smaller scale (e.g., American Midwest, Great Plains). Especially interesting is the discussion of New World population origins. New and old data are presented in an unbiased manner, leaving it up to the reader to decide which of the conflicting theories to accept.

The tenth chapter, "Changes and challenges in bioarchaeology," is perhaps the most important chapter in the book. In this final chapter, Larsen takes the opportunity to discuss topics such as sample representation, data recording standards, and bioarchaeology and cultural patrimony. The idea of the osteological paradox, first presented by Wood and co-workers in 1992, is one that bioarchaeologists have hotly debated. And Larsen’s final words, concerning NAGPRA and the impact of the law on bioarchaeology, seem to cover the tone of the entire text:

"The chance is now at hand for sharing this information widely, especially regarding the large and crucial part that human biology and bioarchaeology play in understanding the history of the human condition." Larsen, in this book, takes a big step in that direction.

To summarize, this work is a valuable addition to the libraries of skeletal biologists, archaeologists and bioarchaeologists, paleopathologists, and others interested in studying human remains from archaeological contexts with a bio-cultural perspective. Students will find the text relatively easy to read and comprehend, and will appreciate the emphasis on case studies in understanding the techniques, methods, and theories. Professionals will appreciate the extensive literature reviews Larsen incorporates into the text.