Skeletal biology and behavior in ancient humans


  • Patricia S. Bridges

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    • Pat Bridges is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Queens College. Her primary area of interest is the assessment of physical activities from skeletal remains, on the basis of biomechanical analysis or levels of osteoarthritis. She has recently completed a study of changes in long bone diaphyseal cross-sectional structure occurring with the intensification of agriculture in the Lower Illinois Valley. Currently, she is analyzing warfare-related mortality and traumatic injuries at Koger's Island, a late prehistoric agricultural site in northwestern Alabama.


For many years, it has been known that archaic hominids had more robust long bones than do living populations, a fact that has been linked to their more physically strenuous lives. But many questions remain. How much stronger, for example, were Neanderthals than living humans? And what does this difference in strength tell us about the behavior of our ancestors?

Recent research has shown that some of our earlier assumptions about robusticity and behavior in earlier humans are either simplistic or untrue. For example, it is now clear that although earlier humans were, on the average, stronger than living peoples, this is not invariably the case. Some modern human groups have even stronger humeri than those of Neanderthals. The fact that changes in robusticity do not always neatly coincide with subsistence or technological change suggests that interpretations derived in large measure from stone-tool technology and other artifactual evidence may be misleading. This new information on physical strength in earlier humans necessitates a reassessment of traditional ideas about earlier human behavior.