Osteology Laboratory

Osteology Laboratory: Nancy J. Akins and Ann L.W. Stodder


While most people think of painted pottery, projectile points, and Puebloan architecture as the stuff of southwestern archaeology, in the Osteology Laboratory we study biological parts of the archaeological record – the remains of people and animals from archaeological sites excavated by OAS and other organizations.

In addition to an extensive library the OAS Osteology Lab has a substantial comparative collection of animal skeletons – from elk to field mice, bison to quail – that were used by (or lived with) the prehistoric and historic people of New Mexico.

Animal bones (faunal remains) provide a wealth of information about how people adapted to local and regional resources and to changing conditions in their physical and social environments. While it is important to know which animals were used, we learn far more from the very detailed information recorded in OAS analyses.Faunal specimens As with all archaeological materials, context is important. The specific location of bones in an archaeological site helps us to understand the history of use and deposition of faunal remains. The body parts represented, butchering practices revealed by the portion of the bone recovered and tool marks, the location and degree of burning on bones, and whether bone was exposed to the elements or gnawed on by rodents or carnivores all provide information about the economic and ritual uses of animals. Adjunct to this is the study of bone artifacts: bone tools for weaving, sewing and hide cleaning, ornaments, whistles, and gaming pieces are rich sources of information about the activities and aesthetics of past people.

Faunal remains from historic period archaeology projects in Santa Fe provide information on animal consumption by the earliest Spanish settlers to the early twentieth century residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Archaeological features at the Palace of the Governors reveal variation in the Faunal specimens in storage for comparative analysisuse of animals during the Spanish Colonial, Mexican, and Territorial Periods. But even within the same general time period, some of the deposits consist mainly of sheep and goat bones while a few others have mainly cattle bones, and others include pig and chicken remains. Very few of these historic deposits have native fauna like deer and rabbits, suggesting that social and economic status were important factors in what people ate, even in the relatively small early historic population in Santa Fe. The same was true of the soldiers who lived at Territorial Period Fort Marcy. Food remains left by officers and their families were considerably different from the NCOs and enlisted men. There is far less evidence of dietary differences between nineteenth and twentieth century working class Hispanic and Anglo residents.

In recent a project we examined an array of animal remains on the floor of a prehistoric Basketmaker pit structure in Northwest New Mexico that was excavated as part of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. Skulls of a badger, dog, and coyotes were modified and the teeth removed. The skulls have wear and polish on their bases suggesting ritual use of these animals—which are ethnographically known to have significance for SW people. No one was buried there, but two human finger bones with cut marks comprise another unusual find from this structure. The same structure had a range of bone tools for piercing and weaving, and bone beads that include both finished tools and some that were in the process of manufacture. Curated animal skulls and weaving tools strongly suggest ritual use of this structure.

When we study human remains from archaeological sites (bioarchaeology) we are inquiring about the life histories of people in the past. The skeleton is a dynamic entity that is quite literally shaped and re-shaped throughout our lives. In bioarchaeology we try to reconstruct the health, activity patterns, and life expectancies of individuals and groups in particular places and over time. But all of our work starts with detailed observations of the skeleton and dentition. Human osteology laboratoryWe use calipers and osteometric boards to record a long list of measurements that physical anthropologists have been using for more than a century. An ever-expanding array of systematic observations is used to capture variation in the morphology of particular bones and teeth that bear information about ancestry and individual life history. We see evidence of dental problems, arthritis, injuries from accidents and interpersonal violence, nutritional deficiencies, and chronic diseases like tuberculosis. We also consider the evidence for how people were treated in death —the location of burial, arrangement of the body, and what items, if any, accompanied the burial. These many kinds of information gleaned from close study of skeletons and their archaeological contexts contribute significant and unique insights into the biological and social lives of people in the past.