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  • Writer's pictureArjun Patel

Osteoarchaeology: The Truth in Our Bones

I was interested in the topic of anthropology, and how we could deduce so much information about past humans from a pile of their bones. I discovered a course called “Osteoarchaeology: The Truth in Our Bones” on Coursera, and I jumped at it. I quickly enrolled and started my journey to learn about the truths hidden in our bones. This course was truly inspiring and interesting, and I highly encourage and recommend that you enroll here. The first week of the course mostly consisted of introductory material, which I found easy to comprehend and understand. In my opinion, this course was well-structured and easy to follow due to Professor Andrea Waters-Rist's clear explanations of each topic.


I first learned how to estimate the age-at-death of subadults (0-17) and adults (18+) using the ectocranial suture closure, left pubic symphysis, and right auricular surface. I also learned to estimate the sex of an individual using the mastoid process on the cranium, mental eminence on the mandible, and greater sciatic notch on the pelvis and sacrum. Lastly, I learned how to estimate the stature of an individual before their death using long bones, such as the tibia, humerus, femur, ulna, and/or radius. I thought that all of this knowledge was truly interesting because I loved finding out how many bones could tell us about past people.

The next week was all about paleopathology, which is the study of ancient diseases and illnesses. Learning about leprosy, rickets, trauma, and bone biology, I was in the end able to determine the cause of pathological lesions and osseous malformations or anomalies. Usually, you can even deduce the actions that caused lesions in the individual and their healing process. This was interesting to me because you could find out the kinds of activities that people in the past did, such as rowing or hunting!


The third week started talking about the paleo diet. No, not the modern diet, but the diet of the people who came before us. Using collagens collected from a small fragment of an individual’s rib, you can reconstruct this person’s diet. The values of the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes correspond to certain animals that they could have eaten. Values of the individual’s ribs and the rib values of animals that were potentially eaten. Caries, also known as cavities, can tell a story about a person’s diet as well. Dental cavities resulted from fatty foods at that time, so by looking at people’s teeth, I could infer what types of food they ate, adding to my evidence from the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios. This part was one of the most interesting parts for me because it was groundbreaking to discover what people in the past ate.


A graph of what an individual ate. According to the graph, this human most likely ate cod, cormorant, halibut, flounder, haddock, sturgeon, and herring.

Next, I learned about entheseal changes, degenerative disc disease, Schmorl’s nodes, teeth as tools, and osteoarthritis and how they can be caused. Entheseal changes tell us about what bones were used the most in an individual using the robusticity, osteophyte formation, and osteolytic lesions of the bones. Degenerative disc disease and Schmorl’s nodes can be observed and found in the thoracic vertebrae of an individual. These can tell us if the individual participated in daily sports that could add to entheseal changes. Have you ever used your teeth as tools? Well, it shows and is easily identified when you use your teeth for rigorous activity, damaging them. Luckily, today we do not engage in such activities as people in the past did. Osteoarthritis, my personal favorite to investigate, gives off a shine on the bone and is, therefore, easily identified. These lesions can also tell us more about the activities that individuals in the past participated in. Week 4 was by far my favorite week of the entire course.


Lastly, in Week 5, I learned about the mobility and migration of an individual. Using the maximum bending rigidity, minimum bending rigidity, average bending rigidity, and torsional rigidity of a long bone, you can determine where the individual lived and the type of hunters they were. Moreover, the strontium isotopes from several enamel and bone samples can tell us if the individual has ever migrated, and if so, how far the migration was.


I learned so much in this course, and I would highly recommend that you guys check it out here and become a part of the growing anthropology community!

- AnthroManTalks


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