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ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

Bioarchaeology is the contextual analysis of biological remains from past societies. It is a young and growing discipline born during the latter half of the twentieth century from its roots in physical anthropology and archaeology. Although often associated with the study of ancient diet and disease, bioarchaeology leverages variable temporal scales and its global scope to provide a uniquely comparative perspective on human life that transcends traditional boundaries of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Here, we explore the public face of bioarchaeology and consider the trends in publication practices that reflect diversifying research strategies.

Bioarchaeology is a popular topic on web-based science news aggregators. However, we identify a disconnect between bioarchaeology's traditional research emphases, emerging research foci, and findings that actually spark the public imagination. A majority of popular news articles emphasize basic discovery or “natural curiosities.” Publication data indicate the field also remains regionally focused with relatively little emphasis on nomothetic goals. Nevertheless, bioarchaeology can do more to leverage its historical perspective and corporeal emphasis to engage a number of topics with importance across traditional academic boundaries. Big data, comparative, multi-investigator, interdisciplinary projects on violence, colonialism, and health offer the most obvious potential for driving research narratives in the biological and social sciences. Humanistic approaches that explore emotional connections to the past can also have merit. The diversity of research outlets and products indicates the field must embrace the importance of nontraditional activities in its value structure to maximize our potential in public arenas. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 27:51–60, 2015. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Good bioarchaeological research requires the bioarchaeologist to frame questions to suit the archaeological record and with a good grasp of theoretical insights in order for the study to appeal to both anthropologists and archaeologists and to the wider public. (Knüsel, 2010: 71)

INTRODUCTION

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

In the face of increased college costs for students and a challenging job market for graduates, over the past 10 years, higher education has received scrutiny from the public and lawmakers on state and national levels to justify its existence more than ever. The humanities and social sciences have received a disproportionate amount of this criticism while STEM disciplines receive praise as job creators and problem solvers (Gates and Mirkin, 2012). The High Quality Research Act proposed to add an additional layer of political scrutiny on top of proposal peer review, thus violating a sacrosanct part of the scientific process (Smith, 2013). Additionally, there are more researchers publishing more work over the last 25 years than ever before (Jinha, 2010). In this climate, many in academia are asking how we might better advertise the value of higher education to the public. At the same time, many disciplines are questioning how we might translate future efforts into greater public service by creating a more informed citizenry and by engaging and solving tangible problems. Human biologists are well suited to take part in this discussion, and this is particularly true for biological anthropologists. No other field studies humanity with the same global breadth and temporal depth as than anthropology, and we are well advised to leverage the unique perspectives that we collectively can offer.

Here, we explore the role of bioarchaeology in this discussion. We consider the history of the field, publication trends within academic outlets, and articulation and outreach through popular venues. Comparison of academic and mainstream sources suggests two things: (1) that bioarchaeology developed and remains a regional enterprise and (2) that the bioarchaeology captured by the popular press and on social media is poorly representative of the majority of bioarchaeological research. Both of these factors limit (and reflect) our (in)ability to capture the public imagination and to insert our expertise into public debates about a variety of topics ranging from race and human evolution, to gender roles, to warfare and violence. We argue that bioarchaeology can help historicize and bring alive the human biocultural experience on a global level through both large and small time scales. However, future growth as a field requires increased exploration of the relationships between research and education, public imagination, and policy to truly translate our efforts into greater public awareness and influence.

BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

Bioarchaeology is a young field, just under 40 years old (Buikstra, 1977, 2006a; Buikstra and Beck, 2006; Larsen, 1997). The discipline has experienced rapid growth that has led to little current consensus regarding its definition and scope beyond the baseline fact that it is the study of human remains from archaeological sites. The number of recent publications that have explored the recent expansion into diverse research loci and frameworks, methods and practices, and the roles of models and theory in building inference attests to this fact (see Armelagos, 2003; Armelagos and Van Gerven, 2003; Buikstra, 2006a; Buikstra et al., 2012; Cook, 2006; Goldstein, 2006; Knüsel, 2010; Larsen, 2006, 2010; Perry, 2007; Zuckerman and Armelagos, 2011). A brief review of the history of the discipline shows that various bioarchaeologies have evolved over the last 10–15 years (Buikstra, 2006a; Buikstra et al., 2012; Larsen, 1997, 2006; Martin et al., 2013) despite the field's fairly recent emergence within American anthropology (Buikstra, 1977, 2006a, 2006b) and British archaeology (Roberts, 2006). Bioarchaeology developed as a distinct discipline during the 1970s by combining elements of the New Physical Anthropology and the New Archaeology. It found its footing in the diet, disease, and demography focus of the 1980s through early 1990s leading up to the quincentennial of Columbus' arrival in the New World (Baker and Kealhofer, 1996; Larsen, 2001; Verano and Ubelaker, 1992). It struggled through internal debates (e.g., Bocquet-Appel and Masset, 1982; Wood et al., 1992) and the repercussions of NAGPRA and similar legislation affecting cultural patrimony (particularly in the United States; Baker et al., 2001; Buikstra, 1981; Dongoske, 1996; Kakaliouras, 2008; Landau and Steele, 1996; Rose et al., 1996; Seidemann, 2004) throughout the rest of the last millennium. With the recent expansion of its ranks over the course of the last decade, the field has moved into new areas of practice while also pausing to assess where we have been and where we should be going.

Studying the human biology of past peoples is certainly worthy of inquiry in its own right. Nonetheless, many researchers now view data informing on health, diet, kinship, trauma, and migration, among other things, as starting points to be considered in light of their cultural contexts to inform larger sociocultural phenomena and patterns of behavior. As a result, the field has recently expanded beyond an emphasis on health and methodology as primary research agendas [although both are and will remain important; see Grauer (2011); Katzenberg and Saunders (2008); Pinhasi and Stock (2011)]. Instead, more recent work that is more topically oriented explores and defines new research agendas (Bonogofsky, 2011; Buikstra and Roberts, 2012; Lewis, 2007; Martin et al., 2013; Stodder and Palkovich, 2012), and establishes bioarchaeology's place among diverse areas of scholarship that traditionally have not included biological data (Agarwal and Glencross, 2011; Baadsgaard et al., 2012; Gowland and Knüsel, 2009; Knüsel and Smith, 2013; Martin et al., 2012; Sofaer, 2006). This trajectory has led to vibrant discussion regarding the emergence of many “bioarchaeologies” (Armelagos and Van Gerven, 2003; Buikstra, 2006a, 2006b; Buikstra et al., 2012; Larsen, 1997, 2006; Zuckerman and Armelagos, 2011), which reflect one or more broad sets of research goals and methods. The first continues to emphasize articulation with the natural sciences, investigating aspects of evolution; health and disease; and climate change in larger cultural contexts (e.g., DeWitte and Wood, 2008; Hutchinson, 2007; Pinhasi and Stock, 2011; Roberts and Buikstra, 2008; Steckel, 2008; Steckel and Rose, 2002; Stojanowski and Knudson, in press). A second research goal is to use human remains as a means to inform on broader sociocultural phenomena within highly contextualized framework. Examples here include recent work related to a host of diverse topics including: embodiment (Borić and Robb, 2008; Duncan and Hofling, 2011; Duncan and Schwarz, 2014, in press a, in press b; Gillespie, 2001; Jones, 2005; Meskell and Joyce, 2003; Rebay-Salisbury et al., 2010; Tiesler, 2013; White et al., 2009), gender (Geller, 2008, 2009, 2012), inequality (Barrett and Blakey, 2011; Blakey, 1998; Klaus, 2012; Nystrom, 2011), ethnogenesis (Klaus, 2008; Klaus and Tam, 2009; Kurin, 2012; Stojanowski, 2005, 2010, 2011), violence (Knüsel and Smith, 2013; Martin et al., 2012; see below), identity (Agarwal and Glencross, 2011; Baadsgaard et al., 2011; Buikstra and Scott, 2009; Gowland and Knüsel, 2009; Knudson and Stojanowski, 2009; Sofaer, 2006), deviance (Murphy, 2008), childhood (Halcrow and Tayles, 2011; Lewis, 2007; Perry, 2006; Tiesler, 2011), public memory (Tarlow, 2011; Williams, 2010), and disability (Tilley and Oxenham, 2011; Waldron, 2007). Finally, a third research focus adopts a decidedly humanistic approach (e.g., Boutin, 2012; Robb, 2013) in which researchers use human remains and their contexts to tell the story of individuals and groups to identify and bring to life similarities and differences in personal experiences through time and space.

PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

These divisions within bioarchaeology are important because they manifest in publication trends and inform on the degree to which we engage the public as a discipline. To explore bioarchaeological publication practices, we tabulated and categorized 10 years (2003–2013) of published bioarchaeology papers from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (AJPA), the venue that traditionally has seen the most vigorous publishing of noncase study research in the field (see Stojanowski and Buikstra, 2005). AJPA has among the highest impact factors and is the flagship journal for North American bioarchaeology. As such, although AJPA does not reflect the totality of bioarchaeological research over the last decade; it does reflect its more visible output. Our goal was to categorize papers in terms of audience and intent, that is, the professional “function” of any particular paper. Why was it written? Papers were defined as bioarchaeological if they included a human osteological and archaeological component, excluding those that used genetic data within a population history and structure framework or those that considered anatomy and functional morphology as end goals even if they used data from archaeological samples. We also excluded papers that were forensic in orientation and primarily about human identification using skeletal data. We identified 424 papers and divided them into three categories: (1) general knowledge—papers that speak to a wider audience about the human condition writ large, (2) regional studies—papers based on regional or site-specific inferences in which an archaeological problem orientation was primary even if reference to big picture issues was included, and (3) bioarchaeological knowledge—papers about “doing bioarchaeology” better including presentation of new methods or improvements of existing ones. Using this framework only 9 of 424 articles could not be fit into one of these categories.

Despite the fact that AJPA is explicitly scientific in orientation most of the publications during the survey period did not focus on broad, comparative research or the production of knowledge that is widely or universally applicable. A total of 260 papers (63%) were regional or site-specific in focus, 133 (32%) were about the practice of bioarchaeology, and 22 (5%) presented general inferences not based on a specific regional archaeological or historical context. It is important not to over interpret these data however, as they represent but one venue in which bioarchaeological work is published. Nonetheless, the numbers reflect research focused on middle-range linkages between behaviors and their material signatures (for intriguing recent examples see Blondiaux et al., 2012; Osterholtz, 2013; Shapland and Lewis, 2013; Tiesler and Cucina, 2006) and improving techniques of analysis. In addition, these data emphasize the continued importance of regional, contextual approaches that define research questions from a bottom-up perspective, couched in historical particularism. In other words, although bioarchaeological research often includes inferences about the social realm, the insights garnered are historically contingent and specific to a time and place. At the same time, the coverage is nearly global. Six of seven continents are represented, including Oceania. Interestingly, Europe represents 41% of published papers followed by North America (14%), South America (11%), and Asia (10%). The United Kingdom alone is represented in nearly 13% of published papers, reflecting interesting dynamics related to cultural patrimony and relationships between bioarchaeologists and various stakeholder communities (Armelagos, 2013; Martin et al., 2013; Roberts, 2006). Still, there is a great diversity of countries represented: Albania, Canary Islands, Easter Island, Iran, Malawi, the Marquesas, Mongolia, Serbia, Syria, and Vietnam. Even in a venue most likely to showcase a scientific and nomothetic orientation, bioarchaeology is simultaneously global in scale yet regional in focus.

In contrast with papers published in AJPA, the last 10 years have also witnessed a burgeoning industry in book publishing. Although this approach to scholarship was certainly well represented in the health focus of the 1980s and 1990s (Baker and Kealhofer, 1996; Cohen and Armelagos, 1984; Larsen, 2001; Verano and Ubelaker, 1992), more recent efforts have expanded bioarchaeology's reach into new areas of practice. Some of these books are regional compendia that explore the range of biological and social phenomena within a specific archaeological context (Oxenham and Tayles, 2006; Pechenkina and Oxenham, 2013; Perry, 2012). These volumes are more similar in scope to the journal articles discussed above. Others are more experimental in their application of social theory to biological data sets (Agarwal and Glencross, 2011; Gowland and Knüsel, 2009; Knudson and Stojanowski, 2009; Sofaer, 2006; Stojanowski, 2010), or expand and explore the boundaries of bioarchaeological practice (Schug, 2011; Stodder and Palkovich, 2012; Stojanowski, 2013). The chapters often attempt to extend the boundaries of the discipline through theorized contextual case studies that involve the human body and its biology as a vehicle of social information (Agarwal and Glencross, 2011; Baadsgaard et al., 2012; Gowland and Knüsel, 2009; Knudson and Stojanowski, 2009). Often (in our opinion), for the most theoretically sophisticated research what matters is the idea—the implementation of theory with data—rather than the actual content of the chapter itself. These are the “edges” that we refer to above, finding the limits of what one can learn about the past and present through analysis of bioarchaeological data. Most recently, synthetic, bottom-up comparative volumes have also been published that tackle a specific topic that is more broadly relevant within the social sciences. Examples here include work related to conflict and violence (Harrod and Martin, 2013; Knüsel and Smith, 2013; Martin et al., 2012; Schulting and Fibiger, 2012), and colonialism (Murphy and Klaus, 2014). These volumes are important because they engage larger biological and sociological issues, but frequently explore a range of variation related to a specific phenomenon without attempting to provide explanations. As such while these volumes engage general topics, they tend to avoid large, nomothetic, or even synthetic statements about their respective topics. As regional coverage becomes more complete however, researchers may feel more inclined to offer synthesis and explanation. This would mirror, for example, the history of ethnographic work on gender in areas such as Melanesia and Amazonia where historical depth and breadth of research ultimately permitted researchers to make larger, comparative statements (e.g., Gregor and Tuzin, 2001).

Researchers do not have to select one publication strategy over the other, but the publication patterns described here have consequences. Edited volumes are typically poorly indexed and, therefore, less likely to be cited by other researchers, which has a tangible impact on individual researchers' careers. The fact that regional archaeological journals (which constitute the vast majority of archaeological journals) have lower h-index 5 scores than more biologically oriented anthropology journals attests to this fact (Table 1). Nonetheless, both publication strategies (journals and book chapters) are primarily regional in focus, which reflects a general particularistic trend that has characterized anthropology as a whole since the 1980s (Bloch, 2005; Knauft, 1996). Anthropologists are increasingly likely to drill down into specific contexts in an effort to historicize and theorize people's lives and experiences accurately and precisely. However, such particularism has come at the cost of anthropologists removing ourselves from engaging nomothetic research on a host of cultural subjects including marriage, bodies, religious beliefs, or ecology (Bloch, 2005:7). When anthropologists do engage in large-scale topics [e.g., Scheper-Hughes (1993) on poverty, parenting, and infant death; Wolf (1982) on global history], Bloch (2005: 2) notes they are “criticised anecdotally at the ethnographic level, but at the theoretical level not systematically tested and simply left to float in never never land.” The salient point is that both of these factors, the relative value placed on journals over edited volumes and the regionalization of both types of venues, impact the degree to which bioarchaeologists can engage, much less drive, public discussion on any given topic. If we marginalize ourselves then others may respond by either (1) filling the void themselves (e.g., Jared Diamond's work) or (2) failing to include bioarchaeologists in public discussions for which we can provide strong empirical, cross-cultural, and temporally dynamic data. We argue the latter is a more critical concern for the health of the discipline.

Table 1. Journal rankings within anthropology and archaeology as generated by Google Scholar.
Journalh-index 5
  1. The h-index 5 is the largest number h, such that h number of articles published between 2008 and 2012 were cited h times.

Journal of Human Evolution39
Journal of Archaeological Science36
American Journal of Physical Anthropology34
Current Anthropology30
American Journal of Human Biology28
American Journal of Primatology28
Economics & Human Biology27
Annual Review of Anthropology25
International Journal of Primatology24
Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews23
Cultural Anthropology22
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute20
Annals of Human Biology20
Vegetation History and Archaeobotany20
American Ethnologist19
Antiquity19
Archaeometry18
Journal of Cultural Heritage18
American Anthropologist17
Primates17
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology17
Anthropological Quarterly16
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology16
Anthropological Theory15
Radiocarbon15
American Antiquity15
Cambridge Archaeological Journal15
World Archaeology15
Archaeological Prospection15
Geoarchaeology11
The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology10
Archaeologies10
Latin American Antiquity10
Oxford Journal of Archaeology10
Archaeology in Oceania9
Australian Archaeology9
Archaeological Dialogues8

For example, a 2010 survey conducted by Harvard University addressed the current state of the social sciences (Muresianu, 2010 2011−2011), an exercise inspired by David Hilbert's (Hilbert, 1900) reflective address at the beginning of the twentieth century on the current state of mathematics that helped define mathematical inquiry for the next 100 years (Marsden, 2013). Top social scientists were polled and asked to identify ten key issues, to rank them on the basis of how difficult they will be to solve and to rank them in terms of global importance (Table 2). Few of these topics fall within any one discipline, and bioarchaeology alone will not solve any of them. However, we can contribute, and in some cases help frame, discourse by thinking about key issues and how our data can contribute to these broader discussions in a larger, more synthetic way. Surely bioarchaeologists have something to offer to discussions of world peace (ranked first in importance and difficulty), population growth and sustainability (ranked fourth in importance and third in difficulty), and how the social becomes biological (ranked sixth in net difficulty). Our challenges are to begin thinking directly about these problems and to identify ways that we can make the public and other disciplines more aware of what we bring to these debates and discussions.

Table 2. Hard and important topics in social science as determined by the Harvard social science panel
RankImportanceNet ImportanceDifficultyNet Difficulty
  1. The full questions for each topic are presented in Muresianu (2010 2011, 2011).

  2. The topics were voted on by a panel of social science experts and through a Facebook poll. Voters ranked each topic as “Extremely,” “Very,” “About average,” “Not at all,” and “Don't understand the question” with regard to how hard and how important the topics are. Those voted as most important and most difficult were scored as such by virtue of having the most voters choose “Extremely.” Net importance was determined by subtracting the number of votes for below average (the sum of the “Somewhat” and “Not at all” votes) from the number of votes above average (the sum of the “Extremely” and “Very” votes).

1World peaceWorld peaceWorld peaceIslam and the West
2Emergent propertiesPopulation growth and sustainabilityIslam and the WestWorld peace
3Humanity's purposeBad collective decision-makingPopulation growth and sustainabilityPopulation growth and sustainability
4Population growth and sustainabilityResilient institutionsWhat is consciousness?What is consciousness?
5JusticeIslam and the WestEmergent propertiesBlack Swans
6Bad collective decision-makingEmergent propertiesHumanity's purposesHow does the social become biological?
7Islam and the WestBehavior changeJusticeDownward causality
8Digital surveillance and cultural changeDemocratization and international conflictBlack SwansResilient institutions
9Role of genes in behaviorDigital surveillance and cultural changeHow to decide what is "good" for societyJustice
10How to decide what is "good" for societyPersistence of ideologies and normsKnowledge acquisitionRole of genes in behavior

This issue is perhaps no more relevant than for the study of conflict, warfare, and violence. This is a topic perfectly suited to bioarchaeological analysis and the field has engaged it since its inception (Martin and Frayer, 1997; Walker, 2001). It continues to engage the topic today (Andrushko et al., 2005; Chacon and Dye, 2007; Chacon and Mendoza, 2007a, 2007b; Duncan, 2005, 2011; Duncan and Schwarz, 2014, in press a, in press b; Duncan et al., 2009; Fiorato et al., 2000; Harrod and Martin, 2013; Klaus et al., 2010; Knüsel and Smith, 2013; Kuckelman et al., 2002; Martin and Anderson, in press; Martin and Osterholtz, 2012; Martin et al., 2012; Novak, 2006; Osterholtz, 2013; Schulting, 2006; Schulting and Fibiger, 2012; Smith and Knüsel, 2013; Spence et al., 2004; Sugiyama, 2005; Tiesler and Cucina, 2006, 2007; Tung, 2012), and it is one of the more vibrant areas of study with the greatest potential for transdisciplinary research. There are many facets to the phenomenon of human conflict and violence, including its proximate and ultimate cause, pattern, and distribution, relationship to other social phenomenon, and antiquity within the human species. Despite the tremendous potential of bioarchaeology to contribute and drive these research narratives, the public face of warfare and conflict studies has escaped our discipline. The average “science-interested” nonprofessional is probably more likely to cite Steven Pinker (2011) on the subject than a bioarchaeologist. This situation is changing however. Debra Martin's work on the subject is exemplary and gaining the public recognition it deserves, thus providing a useful model of professional engagement and practice for others to follow (http://blogs.sciencemag.org/sciencevoices/2012/05/violence-is-an-ancient-behavio.html).

THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

In the preceding section, we focused on work published in academic sources, sources that few people outside of the academy may read due to limited access. However, comparing bioarchaeological research published in academic venues with that covered in the popular press or on social media (see below) allows us to identify factors that impact our ability to translate our research into the public domain. Here, we consider a different source, science news aggregators that reach a broader, educated public through a medium that cross-cuts academic and disciplinary boundaries. We ask: What constitutes “big news” in bioarchaeology, news that changes the face of the field or provides new insights into the human species at the general level? What does a “science-interested” member of the public or a scholar in an allied field find relevant about bioarchaeological research? Stated differently, what type of work can we publish that is not solely by us and for us, but rather engages a host of broader issues across diverse academic domains?

The advent of social media has led to the rise of blogs, and blogging has made its way to bioarchaeology (http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/; http://www.bonesdontlie.com/; http://thesebonesofmine.wordpress.com/; Facebook pages such as the Bioanthropology News group and Osteocentric). These blogs provide a valuable service to the discipline, but still represent the perspective of insiders writing largely (we would argue) for other specialists and students. To really gauge the impact of bioarchaeology beyond anthropology, we data mined articles from Science Daily, a successful and popular news aggregator. We considered articles dating back to 2011 tagged with “anthropology” or “archaeology” under the “Fossils & Ruins” heading and chased links to stories through each of these tags. Twenty-seven articles were identified (Table 3) that we categorized in terms of the reason why the article was deemed worthy of extended coverage and of relevance across the natural and social sciences. Eight different categories were identified, as listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Articles from the science news aggregator Science Daily published between 2011 and 2013
TitleCategory
Ancient Teeth Bacteria Record Disease EvolutionDiet
Anthropologists Discover New Research Use for Dental Plaque: Examining Diets of Ancient PeoplesDiet
Dawn of Agriculture Took Toll on HealthDisease
Decoding the Black Death: Anthropologist Finds Clues in Medieval SkeletonsDisease
Searching for an Ancient Syphilis DNA in NewbornsDisease
Scientists Crack Medieval Bone CodeDisease
Skeletons Point to Columbus Voyage for Syphilis OriginsDisease
Black Death Bacterium Identified: Genetic Analysis of Medieval Plague Skeletons Shows Presence of Yersinia pestis BacteriaDisease
Hospital Tests Reveal the Secrets of an Egyptian MummyMummies
Tut, Tut: Microbial Growth in Pharaoh's Tomb Suggests Burial Was a Rush JobMummies
Mummies Tell History of a ‘Modern’ PlagueMummies
Ancient Tooth May Provide Evidence of Early Human DentistryCuriosities
Anthropologists Find American Heads Are Getting LargerCuriosities
Ovarian Tumor, With Teeth and a Bone Fragment Inside, Found in a Roman-Age SkeletonCuriosities
Discovery of Remains of England's King Richard III ConfirmedRichard III
King Richard III? World's First Image of Grey Friars Skull UnveiledRichard III
Science of the Search for Richard IIIRichard III
Search for King Richard III Enters New Phase After ‘Momentous Discovery Has Potential to Rewrite History’Richard III
Grey Friars Female Skeleton Is Possibly of FounderRichard III
Skeletons in Cave Reveal Mediterranean SecretsSuperlatives
First Prehistoric Twins Discovered in Iberian PeninsulaSuperlatives
Archaeology: Spectacular Tomb Containing More Than 80 Individuals Discovered in PeruSuperlatives
Discovery of Oldest Northern North American Human Remains Provides New Insights Into Ice-Age CultureSuperlatives
Anthropologists Discover Earliest Cemetery in Middle EastSuperlatives
Skeletons Found at Mass Burial Site in Oxford Could Be 10th-Century Viking RaidersVikings
Viking Buried With Axe, Sword and Spear Found With Fully Intact Viking Boat Burial in UKVikings
Inequality Dates Back to Stone Age: Earliest Evidence Yet of Differential Access to LandInequality

Although representing only a small window into public translation, the results are interesting and somewhat humbling. First, we note that stories on mummies and Vikings continue to capture the public imagination, although the reasons are obscure and likely deeply embedded in the historical depth of public awareness about these topics. Mummies are interesting because they are mummies. For some reason not entirely clear to us Vikings are deemed more interesting than, say, the Archaic peoples of California, which may reflect cultural notions of masculinity and conquest. Last year was also the “year of Richard III,” and five stories appeared during the survey period that discussed the discovery and remarkable recovery of this English king's body. As an ancient body and representative of the “famous dead,” the story of Richard III has an innate quality of curiosity in which bioarchaeological techniques can address historical mysteries (Duncan and Stojanowski, in press; Komar and Buikstra, 2006). Five articles appear relevant only because of their superlative quality—biggest, oldest, and most spectacular—while three articles are pure curiosity pieces including documentation of the antiquity of dental intervention, documentation of morbid anatomical anomalies (ovarian teratomas), and the curious secular trend of expanding head size in America (we use a loose definition of bioarchaeology here). Stories about disease and the history of human morbidity and mortality are represented by seven distinct news articles, which was the modal value for this survey pool. Finally, among the 27 news stories we identified only two reported findings that are sufficiently general in scale and scope to be of interest to anyone interested in science and the past. Both are worthy of further consideration.

The first paper by Adler et al. (2013) explores the evolution of human oral bacteria across a broad span of time documenting a significant change in bacterial composition with the advent of agriculture and again at the Industrial Revolution. This paper is relevant to all people; it helps explain modern dental health challenges within an evolutionary framework of host–pathogen co-evolution. It is also very easy to see this work impacting clinical practices. It is actionable in that it has the potential to impact health policy and clinical practices. The second paper by Bentley et al. (2013) addresses a more fundamentally challenging issue of the modern world—inequality and differential access to resources. This topic also affects our daily lives, and here we are seeing evidence for its origins, which may have links to root causes. Although less “actionable” than the dental health research, inequality is nonetheless a fundamental concern of the social sciences. Importantly, we note that both papers are highly collaborative projects, interdisciplinary in scope, and using the most recent advances in scientific applications to the past. Both papers are also published outside of traditional venues in anthropology, and bioarchaeology could no doubt benefit from greater engagement in science, social science, and humanities journals that are not discipline-specific (we note that such research is ongoing but difficult to capture in a survey pool such as that performed for AJPA).

Considering the remaining 25 articles outlines the challenges of translation in bioarchaeology in several ways. First, popular press coverage clearly does not reflect mainstream academic bioarchaeology's current foci. Mummies, Vikings, natural curiosities, superlative discoveries, and famous individuals constitute 67% of bioarchaeology's public face over the survey period. These stories have an innate, macabre curiosity associated with them, but it's unclear whether most are actually bioarchaeological as most recently defined (Buikstra, 2006a; Buikstra et al., 2012; Knüsel, 2010; Martin et al., 2013). This coverage speaks, in part, to the ongoing popularity of forensic anthropology, a historically related field (Dirkmaat, 2012; Komar and Buikstra, 2006), particularly when applied to famous individuals of the past such as Richard III.

Second, stories on ancient health were also covered and actually reflected the modal category that we identified. Similar topics provided the basis for bioarchaeology's ascent as an academic discipline and represent one focus within the “bioarchaeologies” we mentioned above. Hence, in this sense, the academic and public face of bioarchaeology may well be in line and there is no doubt that health-related research will continue to provide important insights into the past with potential actionable products (e.g., Adler et al., 2013; DeWitte and Wood, 2008). Despite this, we do find it interesting that ancient health is not at the cutting edge of bioarchaeological research today with more recent work emphasizing topics such as gender, ethnicity and ethnogenesis, childhood, disability identity, and theories of the body (see citations above). These topics may be underrepresented in the popular press because they constitute new territory, or because they do not automatically resonate with the public imagination. However, that the leading edges of the discipline are finding more difficulty translating into the public consciousness and imagination is troubling. It is clearly too early to tell but, it is important as we move forward to consider public outreach potential and current political climates with respect to the relative value of research.

INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

By most measures bioarchaeology is a popular and thriving field. If the growth of the discipline is not evidence enough, professional metrics speak to bioarchaeology's vibrancy. For example, at the 2012 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, bioarchaeology or human osteology papers accounted for 34% of all submitted abstracts, the largest percentage representation among papers on primatology, genetics, paleoanthropology, human biology, and functional morphology and anatomy. Further evidence of the field's popularity comes from job announcements that specifically mention bioarchaeology or osteology as a targeted research specialty. For the 2012–2013 hiring year, we counted 12 advertisements (29%) that specifically mentioned bioarchaeology, second only to modern human biology positions (37%) and outnumbering mentions of primatology, genetics, and paleoanthropology. This issue was discussed by Martin et al. (2013: 250) who attributed the strong representation on the job market to bioarchaeology's inherent interdisciplinarity and the ability of bioarchaeologists to offer a range of courses that cross-cut the traditional subfield structure of American anthropology.

Despite this professional vibrancy, it is clear that bioarchaeologists are (to some degree) marginalizing themselves from public discourse because popular presentations of their work are not representative of the field as a whole. This is a problem, of course, because bioarchaeology is and will always be situated in the larger context of higher education and we cannot ignore larger discussions that indicate a need for continued growth. It is worth noting that there is a significant difference between the problems that Hilbert listed and those identified in the Harvard survey (see above). Hilbert felt that his problems were worthy of inquiry by the worldwide mathematical community because they were sufficiently difficult but still accessible that they might actually be solved. The notion of importance for humanity was not a consideration for him, and the fact that it was for the social science panelists speaks to at least one of the motivations for compiling such a list at all—justifying the value of social science to contemporary society.

Continued scrutiny of higher education by politicians and the public in the face of declining funding pools has forced many in higher education to articulate more clearly the value of what we do to the public at large and to modify our work to meet emerging challenges in society. Indeed, as the epigraph articulates (Knüsel, 2010), good bioarchaeology should inform anthropology and archaeology for sure, but it must also engage the wider public. Martin et al. (2013) emphasized the importance of considering diverse stakeholders in their synthesis of bioarchaeology's past and future. It is incumbent upon us all to consider the public as one such stakeholder, and connecting our work to contemporary public concerns will doubtlessly prove to be an ongoing challenge because contemporary public concerns are always in flux. The question then emerges, how might we as a field increase public awareness about what we do and its value, and how might we engage and contribute to the solution of larger problems that go beyond the traditional boundaries of bioarchaeology and anthropology without chasing ephemeral fads?

There are several ways that academic fields can translate their efforts into a greater impact on public life, such as making tangible products and making specific policy recommendations. These may be true for some aspects of bioarchaeology; however, we suggest that bioarchaeology is and will always be inherently historical and body focused. Its greatest potential for translation into public consciousness, discourse, and imagination will likely always stem from these characteristics. The first avenue for public translation is our potential to view social science topics and problems on a large time scale—History with a big H. Recently Smith et al. (2012) made the call for archaeology as social science and outlined six primary advantages of archaeological data: (1) access to preliterate societies, (2) inclusiveness of all members of a society not just the elites, (3) perspectives on long-term change within societies, (4) statistical rigor through random sampling of data, (5) broad, comparative analysis of social forms, and (6) focus on non-Western societies. Smith et al.'s call for contemporary archaeology echoes George Gaylord Simpson's attempt to carve out a unique place for paleontology in the modern synthesis (Simpson, 1944). In his view, paleontology alone could engage such vast timeframes to shed light on certain evolutionary processes. Insofar as the analogy holds true for archaeology, it is equally true for bioarchaeology, and perhaps even more so because of the universal relevance of human biology.

On the other end of the scale, bioarchaeology can continue to capture public imagination and engage and shape public discourse through contextually rich case studies such as the suffering and desperation that characterized life at Jamestown (http://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/unearthing_past.html) or the historicism of the collision of faiths in the American West (Novak, 2008). This is history with a little h. In addition, contextualized bioarchaeological case studies can play an important role in shaping public discourse through the anthropological veto, the notion that virtually all appeals toward having identified an essential or universal human nature can be met with a counter example. Consider that many current political discussions in the United States reflect a debate as to whether or not human bodies have natural and universal states. These debates include abortion, gender identity, gay marriage, end-of-life issues, and body commodification and organ transplantation. The anthropological veto, as seen through a holistic and contextualized bioarchaeology, falsifies many of these claims to universality. Studies of violence (Duncan, 2011; Duncan and Schwarz, 2014, in press a, in press b) and gender dynamics (Geller, 2009), ancestor veneration (Geller, 2012), and personhood (Houston et al., 2006; Meskell and Joyce, 2003) among the Maya, for example, bolster ethnographic work demonstrating that bodies can be highly fluid entities that are partible and permeable. This informs on these contemporary debates by falsifying the viewpoint that bodies are universally individualized, discrete, and heteronormative.

These case studies seem to have a greater presence in popular venues when they articulate with some preexisting public interest (the famous dead—Benazzi et al., 2009; Duncan and Stojanowski, in press; Hofreiter et al., 2004; Jeffreys et al., 1992; Maples et al., 1989; Penfold-Mounce, 2010; Stojanowski and Duncan, 2008; Tarlow, 2008; Ubelaker, 1996) or have a superlative aspect (the earliest cremation in a region; Duncan et al., 2008). This raises the question of how we, as a discipline, might better raise the profile of other “bioarchaeologies” in the public consciousness. One option is reaching out more directly to the public through venues other than traditional peer-reviewed publications. Blogs (see above) immediately come to mind for this task, but there are other, more dramatic media such as Peter der Manuelian's (2013) 3-D reconstruction of the Giza pyramid. He built a remarkable tool for exploring the pyramid that he uses for teaching, some of which is available to the public. To our knowledge, there are few similarly rich examples available for exploring bioarchaeological case studies, outside of pathological databases (http://archive.museumoflondon.org.uk/Centre-for-Human-Bioarchaeology/). Such tools may help better capture the public imagination and engage discourse on larger topics and may be more likely to be presented on newswires and by general science writers (see http://spark.sciencemag.org/the-thousand-year-graveyard). These are remarkable efforts and easily replicable, but are expensive and time consuming. Critically, engaging in such activities takes away from tasks that are traditionally rewarded in academia (peer-reviewed publications and overhead generating grants). It seems unlikely that peer review will be replaced by blogging as the primary medium of academic engagement, but both traditional and nontraditional means of promulgating our work have to be recognized as valuable if we are to further translate our efforts into the public arena.

A final way that bioarchaeologists may succeed at translation is to more fully embrace humanistic approaches. Humanities studies and explores connections, differences, and shared experiences of human lives. Exploring individuals' and cultures' experiences in the past, on an emotional and phenomenological level, draws the public to our discipline. Why are the names Ardi, Selam, and Lucy so evocative for people who read about paleoanthropology? Because through “naming,” they become relational individuals and establish emotional connections to the past. Similar can be said for “facing” the past, as evidenced by the public's fascination with facial reconstructions (Benazzi, et al. 2009). Indeed, forensic anthropology excels at popular science writing and there is a lengthy list of nonfiction offerings by various practitioners, some of whom have also explored the fiction domain (humanities) with great success (see Bass, 2009; Reichs, 2002).

There are some parallels in bioarchaeology, but the literature is limited. Larsen's (2002) Skeletons in Our Closet parallels forensic writing in its approach to telling stories from and about the dead, but the book stands alone as far as we know. More recently, Wentz (2013) produced a readable account of her work with the human remains from Windover Pond, which, as of this writing, has a 5-star Amazon rating for a highly respectable eight reviews. That eight reviews is considered robust is telling in and of itself. Finally, work by Boutin (2012) uses fiction to speculate about phenomenological aspects of past lives, to draw comparisons between moral, spiritual, or emotional aspects of the people under study. Should we support and reward such activities within the academy? If we do not affirm the importance of humanistic outreach someone else with less expertise may, and probably will, fill the void. In the same way that it is preferable for Kathy Reichs to write fiction about forensic anthropology while carrying a responsible professional background, it is better for professional bioarchaeologists to help capture and shape public imagination about what we do.

CONCLUSIONS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

Bioarchaeology is a relatively young field. As such it continues to undergo periods of exploration, consolidation, and expansion as its popularity increases and more and more scholars define niches for their careers. Here, we have explored how the different facets of bioarchaeological research articulate with disciplines beyond anthropology and identified several domains to which the field can uniquely contribute. It is through each of these avenues (and others) that we anticipate many bioarchaeologies to continue to develop and emerge to contribute to a broader sense of what bioarchaeology as a whole might be. We have also considered bioarchaeology's translational potential for public outreach and engagement. “Old bones” continue to capture public imagination, but perhaps in ways not completely in line with professional interests. In some ways this is to be expected. There is no denying the universal fascination with skeletons and bodies, and a macabre, Victorian fascination may always surround the field to some extent. Beyond public education, however, bioarchaeology also has the potential (unrealized thus far) to directly engage policy debates on topics such as violence, gender, health policy, and matters of the body. In addition, bioarchaeology would be better served and protected from external critique by embracing “big data” and reallocating some of its energies toward exploring and solving problems relevant to the broader social sciences.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED

We thank the editors for inviting our participation in this volume and for two anonymous reviewers for providing useful critique and commentary.

LITERATURE CITED

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  2. ABSTRACT
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. BIOARCHAEOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY
  5. PUBLICATION TRENDS WITHIN THE DISCIPLINE
  6. THE PUBLIC FACE OF BIOARCHAEOLOGY
  7. INCREASING TRANSLATION AND IMPACT
  8. CONCLUSIONS
  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  10. LITERATURE CITED
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