A Bioarcheological Assessment of Health from Florida’s Archaic


The bioarchaeological examination of human skeletal remains permits the analysis of health in historic and prehistoric populations.  Through the interpretation of indicators of health among skeletal populations, we can gauge the level of nutrition, adaptation to environment, and disease prevalence among past societies. This research examines the health of an Archaic population living in eastern Central Florida.   Dated to over 7,000 BP, the remains from Windover (8BR246) provide a glimpse into the lives and health of early North Americans and act as a baseline for comparisons of health across time.

Through the application of the Western Hemisphere Health Index (WHHI) (Steckel and Rose, 2002), the remains from Windover will be evaluated using a standard protocol for assessing the level of overall health of an Archaic population. It will provide a mechanism for examining the overall health of people in east central Florida in the early mid-Holocene, as well as the ability to compare their level of health to other populations included in the Western Hemisphere Health Index Survey.

There are three primary goals of this research:

  1. To assess the individual and overall health of the people from Windover.
  2. To compare the scores from Windover to populations utilizing different subsistence regimes in different geographic regions through time.
  3. To evaluate the Western Hemisphere Health Index as a means of assessing health of past populations.

The Western Hemisphere Health Index (WHHI) is a strategy that enables bioarchaeologists to overcome several problems inherent to the field. It utilizes a standard protocol to insure that data collection is uniform throughout the survey. Skeletal indicators are scored primarily for presence or absence, which reduces interobserver error. It includes a large number of individuals from broad geographic ranges, allowing comparisons among populations utilizing various subsistence strategies in different ecological zones over time. The sites included in the WHHI date from 5000BC to the late nineteenth century, which provides insight into how health has changed over the course of prehistory and history.

Windover will be a significant addition to the WHHI dataset. It predates all populations within the dataset and provides the only sample site from Florida.


The analysis of human skeletal remains was not always considered an integral part of archaeological studies.  Prior to the 1980s, data on human remains consisted primarily of age and sex and was usually relocated to the appendices of reports. Like paleopathology, the early years of skeletal analysis focused on description at the individual level. Buikstra first coined the term “bio-archeology” to describe the integrative, problem-oriented research that combines interdisciplinary cooperation in pre-field planning of archaeological projects, excavations that include persons skilled in osteological recognition and recovery, and intensive integration of skeletal biologists in all stages of research design and execution (Buikstra, 1991). It wasn’t until researchers began broad-based comparisons within and between populations that the potential for bioarchaeological analyses was fully appreciated.

Lacking standardized protocols, data collection and analysis varied among researchers, making comparisons across populations problematic. The implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 necessitated standardized formats for dealing with skeletal inventories. The publication of Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains (Buikstra and Ubelaker, 1994) was the first comprehensive manual that provided standardized guidelines for the analysis of human skeletal remains and the recording of data. Bioarchaeology allows us to address issues of nutrition, disease, physiological stress, activity-related skeletal changes, and quality of life in past populations.

Comparisons of health among populations provide insight into population variability with respect to stress, as well as a population’s ability to respond and adapt to such stress. Larson (1997:6) defines “stress” as the physiological disruption resulting from impoverished environmental circumstances and considers it a product of three key factors, including (1) environmental constraints; (2) cultural systems and (3) host resistance.  The analysis of stressors in prehistoric populations reveals a complex interaction in which there is differential physiological disruption, thus requiring an understanding of the hierarchical response unraveling the success and difficulties that a cultural system, a population, and an individual may have in adjusting to their environment (Goodman et al., 1988:169).

Bioarchaeology utilizes human osteology in an attempt to understand biological parameters of past human populations (White, 2000).  Bioarchaeology can also be utilized to infer social parameters since the lifestyle of an individual leaves clues on the skeleton. There has been a clear association between lifestyle and health of given populations, over time (Powell et al., 1991; Larsen, 1997; Steinbock, 1976; Webb, 1995; Lambert, 1993; Bridges, 1994; Bridges, 1991), with considerable debate as to which subsistence strategies are more conducive to healthy individuals.

The advent of agriculture and associated changes in social structure changed the lives of mobile and semi-sedentary hunter/gatherers by providing more reliable food sources and enabling population expansion through the establishment of permanent occupation sites (Bogucki, 1999). Sedentary settlements allowed storage of food provisions, which minimized periods of scarcity experienced by those dependent on hunting and foraging. Instead of searching for food, agriculturalists could base their settlements within areas conducive to the growing of necessary food sources. However, the advent of population-based bioarchaeological studies would soon call into question many of the “beneficial” attributes once associated with the adoption of agriculture. Taken as a whole, the popular and scholarly perception that quality of life improved with the acquisition of agriculture in incorrect (Larsen, 1995).

The transition from smaller mobile hunting and gathering groups to larger sedentary agricultural populations was accompanied by costs in terms of the overall health of the individual. These costs were comprehensively evaluated in 1982 at a conference that brought together physical anthropologists interested in examining the biocultural effects of the adoption of agriculture. The papers presented within the conference examined the health of individuals before, during and after the transition to agriculture by examining signs of nutritional stress and pathology among archaeological skeletal remains. These papers, later published in Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (Cohen and Armelagos, 1984), showed that the advent of agriculture was in fact frequently accompanied by general decreases in health.

Diminished variability in diet resulted in greater reliance on lower-quality food sources. The diet of hunters and gatherers, which consisted of animal protein and local plants, was replaced by foods such as maize, which provided less protein and inhibited the metabolism of protein within the body. The process of intensification had produced diets increasingly focused on a few highly productive plant food sources that were relatively starchy and low in protein, minerals, and vitamins (Roosevelt, 1984). One major result of a high-starch, low protein diet is an imbalanced immunochemical system leding to impaired disease resistance through depletion of antibodies (more commonly in children than adults) and interference with macrophage metabolism (Jerome et al., 1980:99).

Increases in infectious disease were associated with greater population density and attendant problems in sanitation. Sedentism is particularly likely to increase disease transmission of any parasite that must complete essential phases of its life cycle in the soil (or elsewhere outside the human host) before its offspring can reinfect a new individual (Cohen, 1989:41). Sedentism facilitated the establishment of trade networks, which increased the spread of infectious agents between populations. Intimate interpersonal interaction during trading-center fairs favored direct aerosol transmission of viruses, making native trading centers the foci of communicable diseases (Dobyns, 1992).

Increases in population density may also have led to increases in interpersonal conflict, resulting in greater incidence of skeletal fractures. Warfare is seen as an adaptive response to ecological conditions such as population pressure and limited resources, functioning to increase access to resources (Robarchek, 1994:308). The advent of agriculture caused changes in longbone dimensions. Larsen and Ruff (1991) note diachronic trends in adult body size reduction for the north Georgia coast following the advent of agriculture, which they attribute to reduced activity among agriculturalists compounded by poor nutrition. The effects of agriculture on physical health are apparent when we examine the skeletal remains of past populations.

Bridges (1991) compared the rates of degenerative joint disease among hunter-gatherers with those of agriculturalists in Northwestern Alabama and found a higher prevalence of arthritis in Archaic populations. However, she also found that agriculturalists had increased levels of bone strength, as measured through long bone dimensions, bending and torsion strength, and bilateral asymmetry than individuals from the Archaic period, suggesting increases in workload with the adaptation to agriculture.

Molleson (1994) examined the skeletal changes that accompanied a shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture among the people of Abu Hureya in the Near East.  These changes, which consisted of degenerative changes to the vertebrae, knees, and feet, were caused by the physical demands of carrying heavy loads, pounding grain, and prolonged squatting.   Among the people of the Channel Islands, Lambert (1993) examined skeletal changes that occurred as a result of a shift from a generalized hunting and gathering strategy to one that focused primarily on fishing.  Despite the increase in protein that accompanied this shift, there was a general deterioration in health among these people, resulting in changes in stature and an increase in inflammatory bone lesions.

Papathanasiou (2005) studied health changes following the adoption of agriculture in Greece. The most frequent pathological conditions observed among the population of over 161 individuals included high incidences of cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis resulting from a diet based on domesticated cereals; osteoarthritis indicative of intensive physical activity and heavy workloads; and elevated incidences of healed depressed cranial fractures from violent, nonlethal confrontations.

Oxenham, et al. (2005) examined increasing rates of infectious disease that accompanied the transition from sedentary coastal foragers to centralized chiefdoms with attendant development and intensification of agriculture. The skeletal evidence for infectious disease was absent among the earlier foraging group while over 10% of the latter group exhibited lesions consistent with either infectious disease or immune system disorders.

Schurr and Powell (2005) examined changes in stable nitrogen- and carbon-isotopes among pre-agricultural and highly agricultural groups from eastern North America in order to determine whether reduction in weaning-time contributed to population growths that accompanied the advent of agriculture. Their research indicates that weaning-times remained consistent throughout these changes in subsistence and therefore did not contribute to higher birth rates in the areas studied.

Studies of skeletal material from the Channel Islands have found high frequencies of depressed cranial fractures over a 7,000-year temporal span of prehistory (Lambert, 1994). Walker (1989) found that the incidence of cranial injuries increased significantly between the early and late prehistoric periods of the Channel Islands and attributed this increase to social and ecological conscription in the area due to increased competition for resources.

Although bioarchaeological studies have become more refined and widespread, they continue to suffer from several issues, namely inconsistencies in data collection, scoring criteria, and pathology description and diagnosis. The Western Hemisphere Health Index was developed so that these inconsistencies are minimized.  The index utilizes a standard protocol for data collection that is clear and concise. The scores are generally based on presence or absence of pathological conditions, thereby reducing inter-observer error, allowing comparison across populations.

Windover represents a semi-sedentary group of hunter/gatherers. Although still in dispute, it is generally believed the cultivation of plants among northern Floridians took place around AD 750 (Milanich, 1994). Therefore, Windover predates the adoption of agriculture by over six thousand years. Based on the compilation of work presented in Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (Cohen and Armelagos, 1984), the Windover population would be expected to exhibit better overall health than populations living in denser agricultural settings. Analyses of botanical remains from gut areas of several burials (Newsom, 2002) indicate it was utilized during the late summer/early fall months. Thus, the people from Windover were probably moving between sites, based on seasonality.  Movement between seasonal sites would have restricted the size of the group so overcrowding would likely not have been an issue, minimizing the spread of infectious disease. Stable isotope analyses indicate a riverine diet, possibly turtle, catfish and duck (Tuross et al., 1994). Combining these foods with locally gathered plants would have provided a varied diet with adequate protein, reducing the occurrence of iron deficiency anemia. Paleoethnobotanical reconstruction indicates an array of fresh fruits, nuts, greens, seeds, and tubers from wetland species that helped to further diversify diet at Windover (Newsom, 2002). The Windover diet will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4.

This research is based on the assumption that the Windover population will have a high overall quality of life score, low incidences of infectious disease and nutritional stress and rank near the top of the Western Hemisphere Health dataset.

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