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Skeletons: some remarks on their value to the Human Biologist*

  • J. S. Weiner (a1)

It is probably no exaggeration to say that for not a few archaeologists the examination of skeletal remains means the measurement of the cranium with the object I of establishing ‘ race ’. Indeed there may still be some who believe (or who have been led to believe) that the physical anthropologist can with confidence diagnose the ‘ race ’ or even ‘ subrace ’ of a single skull. What is perhaps worse is the idea that race allocation represents the entire potential biological interest of skeletal material or the sole activity of the physical anthropologist. These views are happily not so prevalent as they were not long since. There is a better appreciation of the scope of physical anthropology and of its greater concern with the general biology of human communities, their genetics and ecology-an approach which is necessary if the maximum biological information bearing on the life of extinct groups is to be extracted from the refractory material offered by skeletal remains. Human bones and teeth often give some insight into the conditions of life affecting the community as well as (sometimes) an indication of the origin and affinities of the group. For the skeleton is susceptible to modification both by the action of environmental agencies and by genetic factors. It is known, for example, that identical twins reared in different environments vary more in such ‘ classical ’ measurements as head length, head breadth and cephalic index, than do twins brought up in the same environment (Newman, 1940). The effect of change of environment in altering the head and body shape of descendants of immigrants has been demonstrated also by Shapiro (1939) and Lasker (1946) much more convincingly than was done in Franz Boas’ pioneer investigation which was subsequently criticised by Morant and Samson (1926). But much more work is clearly necessary before a genetic analysis of such polygenic characters as bone size and shape becomes available and we may hope that the current interest in studies of growth and physique in the living will provide the necessary information.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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