Biocultural perspectives on stress in prehistoric, historical, and contemporary population research



Stress, a concept addressing the consequences of disruptive events on individuals and populations, can be a useful integrative idea. The stress process has much in common with its sister concept of adaptation. However, where adaptation focuses on “adaptive” or positive consequences, stress redresses an imbalance by focusing on the costs and limits of adaptation.

In this paper we first review the interdisciplinary roots of the stress concept. While most stress research derives from research in environmental physiology, Selyean concepts of stress (involving increased catecholamine and corticosteroid output) have forced an expansion toward greater concern for perceptual and psychosocial stressors. What is largely missing from all traditions, however, is concern for sociopolitical processes which are not easily adapted to and consequently are persistent and pervasive causes of stress.

Studies of stress in prehistoric, historical, and contemporary populations by biological anthropologists vary, in a complementary way, as to ability to delineate aspects of the stress process. Whereas the paleopathological methods of the prehistorian provide a suite of skeletal indicators of stress response, and the demographic measures of the historian provide a detailed analysis of consequence, a wide variety of techniques for examining all levels of the stress process are potentially available to those studying contemporary populations. In order to better utilize information from different levels of analysis one needs to focus on measures of stress, such as infant mortality, which are accessible at all levels. Biological anthropologists are in a unique position to elucidate the human condition if, via concepts such as stress, attention is paid to both human adaptive and political economic processes.