In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bioarchaeology

  • Introduction
  • Definition
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Bibliographies
  • Ethical and Legal Concerns

Anthropology Bioarchaeology
Kristina Killgrove
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0121


The study of the human bodies of past cultures, bioarchaeology became a major research area in the social sciences by the late 1970s. Originally influenced by the development of New Archaeology in the United States, bioarchaeology has become one of the more scientifically focused fields of social research (see also the OBO article on Processual Archaeology). By blending archaeology, biology, and cultural anthropology with theory and methods drawn from sociology, demography, chemistry, statistics, history, and forensics, among others, contemporary bioarchaeologists bring a multidisciplinary perspective to the past 10,000 years of humanity. Within that time-frame, humans developed agriculture and domesticated animals; both of these cultural advances have proven detrimental to the human body, particularly in terms of a decrease in health, which bioarchaeologists can see in the patterning of disease and trauma in skeletal remains. Economic changes such as the advent of agriculture also brought changes in the activities and behaviors that people engaged in, with a division in labor along gender lines evident in the biological remains of many societies. Another hallmark of humanity is migration: Homo sapiens have successfully inhabited much of the earth, with our cultural capabilities allowing us to invent ways of dealing with new ecological challenges and our biological make-up allowing us to adapt physically to new environmental conditions. Yet struggles for land and other necessary resources have a lengthy history, much of which can be read in the injuries seen in the skeletons of people subjected to violence and warfare. Bioarchaeology seeks to tell the stories of our collective ancestors. From the Roman legionnaire to the indigenous Britons he was tasked with subduing, from the sacrificed Aztec child to the people whose lives depended on the appeasement of their deity, from the African woman brought to the United States through the transatlantic slave trade to her white owners, bioarchaeology strives to understand how these people both individually and collectively contributed to world history.


The word bioarchaeology was first used in 1972 by the British archaeologist Grahame Clark (see Clark 1972), who employed the term to describe his analysis of faunal remains at Star Carr, a prehistoric site in North Yorkshire, England, and was further defined in Clark 1973. Clark was primarily interested in palaeoeconomics, or the evolution of the relationship between humans and their environment. The focus on faunal remains allowed Clark to discuss prehistoric economies in terms of hunting, butchering, and other practices. The term was independently invented in the late 1970s by anthropologist Jane Buikstra. Influenced by the New Archaeology and the tradition of US four-field anthropology, Buikstra 1977 outlined a bioarchaeology that emphasized the need to generate and solve research questions about past human populations, in contrast to the strongly descriptive skeletal studies that had been done in previous eras of American archaeology. Within the United States, the term “bioarchaeology” caught on as a way to describe the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites. In the United Kingdom, bioarchaeology sometimes refers to the study of all or a subset of biological remains (human, animal, and plant) and may be interchangeable with the term “osteoarchaeology.” Although the definition of bioarchaeology is still quite broad in much of the world, this bibliography employs the denotation of the term common in the United States, where bioarchaeology deals with human skeletal remains, zooarchaeology deals with faunal remains, and palaeoethnobotany deals with plant remains.

  • Buikstra, Jane E. 1977. Biocultural dimensions of archeological study: A regional perspective. In Biocultural adaptation in prehistoric America. Edited by R. L. Blakely, 67–84. Proceedings of the Southern Anthropological Society 11. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.

    Buikstra’s definition of bioarchaeology as a multidisciplinary research program addressing questions of burial, social organization, behavior and activities, palaeodemography, population interaction, diet, and disease took hold in the United States in the late 1970s. This definition is used almost exclusively for the physical remains of humans.

  • Clark, J. G. D. 1972. Star Carr: A case study in bioarchaeology. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Clark termed his study of faunal remains from the Star Carr site in Yorkshire, England, “bioarchaeology,” marking the invention and earliest use of the word.

  • Clark, J. G. D. 1973. Bioarchaeology: Some extracts on a theme. Current Anthropology 14.4: 464–470.

    DOI: 10.1086/201358

    With this article, Clark defined bioarchaeology both as “the archaeology concerned first and foremost with life,” (p. 464) and as “the archaeology of how men occupied territories and maintained life” (p. 466).

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