Ancient Family: Bioarchaeology, Infant Health, and Disease

Real Scientists is in Aotearoa/New Zealand this week with Dr Siân Halcrow (@ancientchildren), a bioarchaeologist and associate professor at the University of Otago. Her research focuses on historical infant and child health and disease, and she spoke with Real Scientists about her work so far:

How did you get into bioarchaeology?
I always had an interest in biological science, but also anthropology and the humanities, and didn’t quite know how they might go together. I took a bioarchaeology paper (the study of human remains from archaeological sites) in the second year of my university degree and really became hooked into the analyses of human remains.

I just really fell into it in a way, albeit with a lot of hard work to get a job in academia. I had a fantastic mentor who really helped me. I was lucky that she suggested that I should do a postgraduate thesis on the topic of infant and childhood health in the past at a time when very little research investigated past human life ways using this approach. Infant and childhood bioarchaeology is now deemed a very important endeavour in studying the past, and I have carved out an exciting and popular research niche. I manage the skeletal analyses on several international archaeological projects in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Chile, and have collaborations in the UK, Australia, Chile, Thailand, Laos, and New Zealand.

What are some of the central themes of your research?
As noted, I am a bioarchaeologist with a research interest in all things to do with infants and children. My research addresses central archaeological questions on the intensification of agriculture and human responses during this seminal time in prehistory, with a regional interests in prehistoric Southeast Asia, China, and South America. I also have a research interest in the ethics of bioarchaeological practice.

What do you want the public to know about your work?
To understand the present it is very important to understand past events. For nearly 2.5 million years of the history of the genus Homo, there was little change in social organisation, subsistence and general way of life. The innovation and intensification of agriculture was a revolutionary turning point for human society. The change to agricultural subsistence allowed greater security of food supply, leading to population growth, increasing social complexity, the development of new technologies, and changes in settlement patterns. Despite the obvious advantages of food security, this development coincides with major negative consequences for human health in some parts of the world.

Ultimately, these changes in human society were the initial stimuli for the development of overcrowding, malnutrition, sickness and poor living conditions, which affect more than half of the world’s population today. Women and children experience the main burden of these changes, which affects population survival. The only direct way to advance our understanding of this fundamental transition in human history is to probe into the lives of past peoples through bioarchaeology, the study of people from archaeological skeletal remains.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the rise of agriculture affected health and development?
This universally applied model of prehistoric health change with agricultural development posits that the transition from hunting and foraging to agropastoral dependence had major implications for diet, weaning, and therefore fertility, with a related increase in infectious disease and decrease in general quality of life. The rise in fertility is related to the increased availability of carbohydrate staples suitable for weaning foods, resulting in a shorter breastfeeding period and earlier return of regular ovulation after birth. A deterioration in general health is related to increased population density and unsanitary living conditions consequent to people living a more sedentary lifestyle. Deterioration in health has also been associated with changes in the natural and social environment, including the introduction of novel diseases from increased contact with domestic animals and the migration of people.

What does a great day off look like for you?
Hanging with my children (I am a mother to a 13 and 4 year old, which takes up most of my time outside of paid work), drinking a lot of coffee, and writing stories on my blog: www.childhoodbioarchaeology.org – Check it out!

Siân Halcrow, welcome to Real Scientists!

Chile photo

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