Notes from the Osteological Associations 2008 symposium part 1

These are notes that will be edited, I urge you to comment on anything that seems to be out of place or faulty so that I can correct this. The intention is to compress these notes into a far shorter and more focused version to be printed in the Swedish Osteological Associations journal Benbiten during 2008. 

Bones bearing witness – notes from the Osteological Associations 2008 symposium.

A beautiful sight (at least for an arranger), in the seminar room more than 60 persons are crammed together to focus on the subject of the day; Osteology, Bones, Decease and more.


The morning sojourn started with an introduction and some welcome phrases by the president of the Osteological Association, Sofia Prata.


She in turn handed the microphone to ass. Professor Jan Storå of the Osteological Research Laboratory (OFL) who held a short introduction speech. As the symposium was held in honor of the late professor Ebba During Jan Storå briefly spoke a few words about her and her accomplishments. He pointed out that the symposiums name is a direct translation of the title of her book “Benens vittnesbörd”. The intention of the symposium is not to be a memorial but a symposium within her spirit and that the symposium in some ways mirrors her attitude of intriguing and curiousness towards bones with a glimpse in her eye.


Thereafter the moderator of the day; Fil.Dr. and substitute ass. Professor at OFL Anna Kjellström, introduced the first lecturer of the day:


“Climate and skeleton. Towards a Human Ecology of Skeletal remains”

Fil.Dr. Tobjörn Ahlström from Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund University.


Ahlström began his lecture with an introduction to the Cornucopian versus Catastrophic debate, optimism versus pessimism.

The debate concerns the limits to global agricultural production where the Optimists point to technological progress as the answer and the pessimists stress limits on arable land.

The Cornucopian or optimistic view holds that continued progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by advances in technology. In other words if the population grows bigger we will find ways to support the larger population. The term cornucopian comes from the name of  the mythical “horn of plenty” (cornucopia) of the Greek mythology which supplied its owners with endless food and drink magically.

The Catastrophic or pessimistic view was presented by Thomas Robert Malthus “An Essay on the Principles of Population has served to define the terms of debate on human population growth and the Earth’s capacity to provide subsistence” ca 200 yrs ago (1798). His hypothesis was that a human population had the potential to increase exponentially if it weren’t limited by support from its resource base. If or when the birthrate is increasing faster than the resource rate this will lead famine and/or the possible collapse of a society. The growth of the number of human consumers and their demands will always threaten to outrun the growth of sustenance. In other words there a society can only grow to a certain size.

In later time the demographic-economic paradox has though proven Malthus wrong.

Within the society of archaeologists and historians there is a form of anthropological uniformitarianism were most gives a very similar view on population growth in prehistoric times. The popular statement is that there is a substantial population growth from ca 1500 BC, with the agricultural revolution. In other word the previous periods were kind of uneventful regarding population growth. The uniform thought could be summarized as slow process during the prehistoric and fast processes today. Ahlströms asks himself and us if this really is the case and how we can find an answer to this?

One thing we can study is climate changes and especially abrupt climate changes and compare this to measurable elements for example human skeletons. The climate change in prehistoric times is studied through ice cores from Greenland and one measurable change on the skeleton that could be connected to climate change is stature.

During the younger Dryas there are two known abrupt climate changes, the 10000 BC event and the 6000 BC event. Both these events happened due to changes in the North Atlantic Sea, one plausible theory is that large amounts of newly melted freshwater might have been rushing into the Sea from the north American continent.

One thing that we lack today is a calibration of archaeology and paleoclimatology.

There is no evidence for a climate change during the transgression period between the Ertebölle culture (Mesolithic, 5200-4000 B.C.) and the Funnel beaker culture (early Neolithic, ca 4000-2800 B.C., the first agriculturists in Scandinavia). But there is evidence for climate change between the time of the Funnel beaker culture and Pitted ware culture (3200-2300 B.C.).

In the skeletons we find several morphological changes that are due adaptation, possibly climatic change. For example the differences between Neanderthals, Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Sapiens could in part be explained by adaptations to different climates.

Ahlström proposes several questions, analysis, that could give us some answers:

  • At what age do the weaning starts?
  • At what age do puberty start?
  • Studies of differences in adult body size
  • Study of mortality scheduals etc.

Another interesting model that can be applied is the Lotka-Volterra model, developed independently by Lotka (1925) and Volterra (1926). This is a model predator-prey interaction where survival is the most important and fertility can be seen as instrument for survival but also as a counterbalance tool. If the life expectancy within a population is high they tends less children than in a population where the life expectancy is low.

Another theory is the Life history theory, an analytical framework that is widely used both in animal and human research where one presumes that many of the physiological traits and behaviors of individuals may be understood in terms of the key maturational and reproductive characteristics that define the life course.

For example why are the pygmees shorter than other groups that lives in the same enviorment? The fact that they live in the same enviorment tells us the stature is not due to any singel enviorment. If one study the growth curves of the pygmees one can see that they stop growing at an early age 12-14 yrs comperd to other groups. In compersiment they also enter puberty early, at ca 12-20 yrs. Some has concluded that this might be a result of fetal imprinting or programing.

Back to climate again but we make a jump in time to the Middle Ages and Historic times.

Two interesing penomenas to study are the medevial warmth period (MWP) (ca 800-1300 AD) and the small Ice Age (LIA) (ca 1400-1850 AD). An intersting study is the corralation between life expectensy and body length.

An intersting study is that of what happende to the Norsemen om Greenland. They landed there during the MWP and either died or moved away during the LIA. There are evidence that shws a tendency towards a shorter stature during the LIA than during the MWP, the sample is

As a conclusion Tobjörn Ahlström stated that there is a lot to gain if we integrate life history theory with human osteology.

The next in line was professor George Maat who in some way continues on the trail set by Tobjörn Ahlström as he takes us to Spitsbergen (Svalbard). Here the climate is a factor instead of main subject, the main subject is instead Scurvy.

“Scurvey. Dying in the world of Spitsbergen”

Professor George Maat from the University of Leiden, Netherlands.


Professor Maat started with a historical background on whaling in the 17th and 18th century. For about two months a year the whalers went to Spitzbergen, the Neatherlands were in competition with the Brittih whalers and this often led to troubles. As the Brittish often arrived before the Dutchmen they on occation burned or destrotyed the dutch village which costed time. In 1634 the dutchmen decided to leave seven men in the village Smeerburg for the winter to prevent this. Smeerburg is/was located on the northwest coast of Amsterdam Island.

The seven men documented their stay in a journal that has been published on several occations in the Neatherlands. Thanks to this jurnal we can follow the hardship that was layed onb this men.

Some notes:

  • 2 December 1634 – They took scurvy potions
  • January 1635 – three men died from scurvy
  • 7 Febuary 1635 – all sufferd from grip, spitting of blood, rectal bleeding and evacuation.
  • 26 Febuary – the last notes are entered
  • Come spring all seven are found dead.

The dead men were found in a baracede house, the description includes a statement on how the dead were found. The seven men was then buried.

The story about seven whalers lived on in the Neatherlands and in 1887 the Barentz expedition visited Smeerburg, among other things they searched for the burial of the seven heroes. They did not find them but discovered that may other graves had been savaged by polar bears.

In 1906 the Dutch navy reburied the dead found under a stone  monumnet to protect the graves from plundering and polar bears. They also searched for the seven men who died in 1635 but didn’t find them.

In 1980 profeesor Maat came to Island to do research on the men buried by 1906 expedition and by chanse stumbled upon seven graves from the 17th century. There were several intersting marks on the the bones, there were long cracks and they were blackend around the joints and the distal ends.

As they began to open the graves, the dead, was in blocks of ice. So before doing any analysis they had to find a way to defrost them. This was done with the help of black plastic bags and the sun.

Of the total number of individuals, 50, including the newly founds at least 39 were concluded to have had scurvy.

The traces were found in different parts of the body. On all 39 hemastosis was found on the ankles and knees. On 28 at the hipjoint, on 27 at the shoulders, on 26 at the elbows and on 18 on the wrists etc.

On a living scury patient one could expect to see swellings on for examples the thighs, marks on the skin due to several small internal bleedings, bleedning gums and later on rottening gums and toothloss.

Traces of healed scurvy is often seen as hematosis in the form of lines on the long bones. This is traces of new bone tissue has inbedded the bloodvessels on the bone.

Scurvy therapy history

The earliest reports on how to prevent scurvy is from 1554, dr. Dodonaeus, who claimed that oranges and scurvy grass was good preventors. In 1747 a test was prefomed by a british captian? Lind?. He ordered half his crew to eat oranges and forbade the other half, as they reached the South Pacific Sea half of the crew was dead, guess what half?

The black colour in the bone was a bit of a mystery. It turned out to blood and due to the microclimate it was still preserved. And it was preserved were the contusions or small internal bleeding could be expected.

To be continued….

Remember that these are notes that will be edited, I urge you to comment on anything that seems to be out of place or faulty so that I can correct this. The intention is to compress these notes into a far shorter and more focused version to be printed in the Swedish Osteological Associations journal Benbiten during 2008.

Magnus Reuterdahl


About Magnus Reuterdahl

I am an archaeologist/Osteologist from Sweden. My main intrest lays in north Euorpean archaeology in, preferbly the prehistory of the late iron age and the neolithic periods. I've also got a strong intrest for Chinese archaeology, especially the neolithc Yangshao culture. I also write about cultural heritage and cultural history. Mitt namn är Magnus Reuterdahl, jag är arkeolog och osteolog och arbetar företrädesvis i Sverige även om jag gjort ett par vändor till Kina. På den här bloggen skriver jag om mitt yrke, om fornlämningar, kulturarv och kulturhistoria m m. View all posts by Magnus Reuterdahl

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