Brief communication: Skeletal biology past and present: Are we moving in the right direction?


  • Samantha M. Hens,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anthropology, California State University, Sacramento, Sacramento, CA 95819-6106
    • Department of Anthropology, California State University, Sacramento, 6000 J Street, Sacramento, CA 95819-6106, USA
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Kanya Godde

    1. Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee Knoxville, Knoxville, TN 37996
    Search for more papers by this author


In 1982, Spencer's edited volume A History of American Physical Anthropology: 1930–1980 allowed numerous authors to document the state of our science, including a critical examination of skeletal biology. Some authors argued that the first 50 years of skeletal biology were characterized by the descriptive-historical approach with little regard for processual problems and that technological and statistical analyses were not rooted in theory. In an effort to determine whether Spencer's landmark volume impacted the field of skeletal biology, a content analysis was carried out for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology from 1980 to 2004. The percentage of skeletal biology articles is similar to that of previous decades. Analytical articles averaged only 32% and are defined by three criteria: statistical analysis, hypothesis testing, and broader explanatory context. However, when these criteria were scored individually, nearly 80% of papers attempted a broader theoretical explanation, 44% tested hypotheses, and 67% used advanced statistics, suggesting that the skeletal biology papers in the journal have an analytical emphasis. Considerable fluctuation exists between subfields; trends toward a more analytical approach are witnessed in the subfields of age/sex/stature/demography, skeletal maturation, anatomy, and nonhuman primate studies, which also increased in frequency, while paleontology and pathology were largely descriptive. Comparisons to the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology indicate that there are statistically significant differences between the two journals in terms of analytical criteria. These data indicate a positive shift in theoretical thinking, i.e., an attempt by most to explain processes rather than present a simple description of events. Am J Phys Anthropol 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.