“Archaeology : Testing remains provides new insights.”


Bradley T. Lepper


Source : 

The scientific study of human remains offers the potential to learn an amazing amount of information about the lives of ancient people. Human bones preserve evidence of age, sex and health, as well as clues to where the people grew up, what activities they engaged in over the course of their lives, what kinds of food they ate and how they died.

If the remains are from a burial, the nature of the grave and any accompanying grave offerings can tell us about the social status of the individual and the religious beliefs of the society in which he or she lived.

The archaeologist and Choctaw Indian Dorothy Lippert has written that "for many of our ancestors, skeletal analysis is one of the only ways that they are able to tell us their stories." And, although "it is difficult to speak with a voice made of bone," scientific studies provide one last way for them to teach us about their lives.

In 2001, Historic Horizons Inc., a Canadian cultural resources management firm, discovered eight American Indian burials at the Great Western Park in Windsor, Ontario. The remains included adult men and women as well as an infant of undetermined sex.

The burial pattern suggested to the archaeologists that they belonged to the Western Basin Late Woodland Tradition, which occupied northwestern Ohio, eastern Michigan and southern Ontario between about A.D. 600 to 1400.

Once the cemetery was identified as aboriginal, the nearby Walpole Island First Nation council was notified. After careful consideration, the Walpole Island group requested that the burials be left in place, but asked that small bone samples be taken to be used for radiocarbon dating and other scientific tests, so that the community could learn more about its ancestors.

Genevieve Dewar, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto, and several colleagues report the results of their studies of this material in the current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones places the burials between about A.D. 1100 and 1300. Based on the previously available evidence, archaeologists had determined that the people in the Western Basin of Lake Erie during this period had been semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers who supplemented their diet with relatively small amounts of maize and other plants grown in small garden plots.

An analysis of chemicals in the bones, however, provided a surprisingly different view.

The relative proportions of different forms of carbon and nitrogen in the bones indicated that the people from the Great Western Park cemetery ate much more maize than expected. In addition, instead of focusing on hunting the variety of mammals in the region, such as deer and bear, these people ate large quantities of fish.

An examination of DNA from the bones also revealed surprises. The researchers found connections with much more ancient populations as well as unique genetic variants not found previously in any other ancient or modern group.

These results are important for a number of reasons. They offer new and unexpected insights into the ways of life (and death) of the American Indian peoples who lived around the western end of Lake Erie more than 800 years ago.

Also, the project offers a model for a successful collaboration between traditional indigenous people and archaeologists in the investigation of an ancient burial site.

Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society.