Written in Bone: The Study of Identity and Gender

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague in my department asked me to give a guest lecture to her anthropology of women and men class. Recently, I have taken a keen interest in investigating gender and identity in the Andes, and my colleague asked that I illustrate to her students how studying human bone may inform us on gender.

My understanding of gender is drawn mainly from archaeological theory. Every archaeologist who addresses constructions and maintenance of gender from the material record knows of the influential work by Conkey and Spector (1984). According to them, gender archaeology (also referred to as “feminist” archaeology) emerged in response to the intentional and/or unintentional propagation of culturally particular ideas about gender in interpretations and reconstructions of the past. The male perspective is taken to be representative of the culture. The female view, on the other hand, is portrayed as peripheral to the norm (Conkey and Spector, 1984). In the archaeological record, women were seen as the recipients of social influences and passive in social processes (Scott, 1999). Oftentimes, women’s domestic and maternal identities are conflated. Gender archaeology strives to make visible woman and their own agency and their construction of their own social world (Scott, 1999). Reinvestigations of human life with females at the center of analysis (Conkey and Spector, 1984) have the potential to elucidate the commonalities and diversity in women’s lives and to examine women’s spheres of power and influence.

There is a ton of information you can gather from the study of human bones. In my particular field bioarchaeology, it is my goal to understand and construct what daily life was like for living populations in the past. We study bones to identify patterns of ill-health, what individuals ate, their daily activities such as work load and occupation, and even identify patterns of trauma. To do this, we have to have a lot of knowledge about the human osteology, focusing mainly on the hard tissues of the body: bone and teeth, because these are what mostly likely preserves archaeologically.

There is a basic principle to the bioarchaeological study of human bone: bones are universal, concrete essentially biological materials that also serve as archaeological artifacts from which specialists may elucidate past behaviors (Sofaer, 2006). Bone is made up of an organic substance and inorganic mineral, the organic material provides bone it’s “give”, while the bone’s inorganic mineral gives bone it’s structure. So the bone’s capability to be modeled, or plasticity, enables bone to be shaped, but there is a limit to how much you can shape bone. In other words, the bone’s plasticity is not limitless

For example, a fracture occurs when the bone’s ability to withstand force fails. The bone’s plasticity has been exceeded. On the other hand, consistent pressure, or force to the bone over time molds the bone, like during cranial modification (a process of binding the skull bones of a growing infants to change the shape of the head). Changing the shape of the skull is a process takes time and requires continuous pressure being applied to the bones of the head. In this case, the bone’s plasticity has been slowly shaped to produce the desired shape.


Above: Fracture of the humerus (arm): plasticity has been exceeded


Above: Cranial modification: Bone’s capability of being molded

So based on these biological principals and cultural practices, the bones may be studied to inform us on both natural processes and cultural phenomenon. So what can bone tell us about cultural phenomenon such as identity, gender in particular?

Archaeologists and bioarchaeologist consider identity a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership and relationship to other group members. These identities include gender, age, status, ethnic affiliation, and so on. Who a person is, their identity, is made up of not one, but coexisting social identities that are brought together, reordered, and disaggregated over the course of a person’s life (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008). All identities are accompanied by group and individual expectations of how a person should behavior and their role in society.

For example, codices such as the Mendoza codex illustrate that in Aztec households, men and women were assigned different duties with the understanding that both sets of activities were necessary for the success of the family. Male activities generally occurred outside the house: farming, fishing, long-distance trading, and making war. Female activities were mostly connected with the house and its associated courtyard: sweeping, cooking, and weaving. Despite this strict division, childcare was not considered a particularly female activity. Women were responsible for educating their daughters, and men were responsible for training their sons.


“Gender Roles among the Nahua in the Codex Mendoza [Painting],” in Children and Youth in History, Item #276, (accessed December 13, 2016). Annotated by Dana Leibsohn

So my question is whether or not these identities be written on the bone. Consistently preforming certain tasks and behaving in ways that are deemed appropriate may result in permanent changes to the skeleton. In fact, others have noted that bones may be useful for examining identities. Reicher and Koo (2004) note that permanent changes to the skeleton reflect shifts in social identity, cultural beliefs, social dynamics and boundaries, and political conformity or deviance. In their evaluation of new directions in bioarchaeology article, Knudson and Stojanowski (2008: 411) recognize that “[s]ocial identities are written directly on the body in the form of body modifications” (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008: 411). It seems reasonable to suggest that we can examine the skeleton to investigate what these permanent changes convey about the social and cultural beliefs of people in the past (and even present).

In “Binding Women: Ethnology, skeletal deformations, and violence against women”, Pamela Stone Explores how certain ideas of what constitutes womanhood are made normal by society, and these practices strive to “bound women’s bodies and behaviors”, and are consider forms of violence against women. Stone draws on three examples: Chinese foot-binding, the neck rings worn by ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, and tight lacing of corsets.

Stone makes the point that bioarchaeologists usually study past societies looking for evidence of conflict using “traditional” examples of trauma, meaning they look for types of wounds that occur before (ante-mortem), at or around the time of death (peri-mortem), and cut marks, in other words, wounds sustained during conflict, warfare, and interpersonal violence in the past. Stone shrewdly notes that identifying conflict in the archaeological record is more complicated, as violence, coercion, and repression of a group of people may not always result in these traditional examples of violence.

Study of violence in the bioarchaeological record places emphasis is placed on men and their pursuit of resources, power, and prestige while the roles and motivations of women are neglected (Martin et al., 2010). Women are traditionally only discussed as victims of violence because they are believed to be much less violent than men, which some research suggests may not be entirely accurate (Warner et al., 2005). Male with injuries are assumed to be warriors and female injuries represent women who were victims of violence. Even if women are less violent than males, it is possible that both males and females utilize violent behaviors as a means of obtaining and securing desired outcomes (Martin et al., 2010).

It seems likely that those in power may perpetuate certain acts to immobilize or limit the agency of those not in power by upholding and perpetuating forms of structural and cultural violence. How do they do this? Stone suggests that literally “binding women” was an example of cultural and structural violence that served to limit female power and agency

Those in power constructed of ideas such as the “fragile female” and by deforming and deactivating the body they limited the physical mobility of the female body. Those in power also enforced beautification; female bodies were modified, deformed, or changed in such a way to fulfill ideas of beauty and worth. In this way, we can study the changes and modifications in female bodies as proxies for how structural and cultural violence impacted women and how female gender and identity was expressed.

Foot-binding is a classic example. The origins of foot-binging is a little murky, but several sources agree that the practice began during the Sung Dynasty, when court dancer Yao Niang bound her feet to mimic shape of the new moon. It was practiced only by elite women, but later in time it was available to all classes of women. In fact, become a selling point for prostitution (particularly appealing to American and European sailors). Though it was outlawed in 1911, some women insistent on binding the feet of their female children. Binding began in childhood, mothers bound feet of their daughters as early as age 5 because the bones were more malleable at that age. Tight wrapping starting at the instep and compressed the foot, turning in the four smaller toes in a longitudinal manner, ultimately stunting the foot’s growth. Toes often lost when the circulation was cut off, often created a gangrene and ulcerous state of the outer two toes. Binding took two years, but bandages worn for life. The idea foot was three inches in length. The practice resulted in permanent modification; the foot could not be returned to original state.


Altered shape of foot and produced gait that relined on thigh and buttock muscles. Long term causes included higher rates of low femoral neck bone density and higher incidence of hip fractures due to falls resulting from the loss of stability from their tiny feet. These risks and issues also coalesced with a lack of mobility resulting in a lack of weight-bearing activities, which are both known to result in poor bone health.

The neck ring tradition of Southeast Asia also had detrimental effects on women’s health, yet persists today. Many Padaung (Kayan) people are now refugees in northern Thailand,  originally from Myanmar (Burma). The neck-ring tradition of this group may have originated as a means to protect women’s necks against tiger attacks. The practice immobilizes females, rendering them helpless and chronically stressed. The custom, like foot-binding, reflects wealth and status and is tied to marriageability and is therefore a reflection of a woman’s identity and beauty. This practice is performed by a girl’s mother, with other female family members, to ensure their daughters are properly acculturated into their belief systems. Stone references a study from 1979, in which Dr. Keshishian published a radiograph of a 43-year-old woman who had worn the brass rings since the age of 5. Her vertebrae remained intact, although stretched, and the rings sat on her ribs and clavicles (collar bones), pushing them down at almost a 45-degree angle to give the illusion of a longer neck. Secondary effects of the neck rings include shorter faces, narrowing of the mandibular widths, inclinations of upper and lower incisors, and changes in palatal heights and mouth opening. As the clavicles are a sort of “coat hanger” of the body, changes in their position and shape also impacts the lungs, and may inhibit breathing or change pitch of voice.


Some documentaries and modern tour groups that visit villages where these women reside note that some women enjoy upholding this tradition but others feel pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living. Human rights groups claim the refugee status exploits women who can’t find other work. According to “Ethical Travel”:

“An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, neck-ring-wearing-women sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops, essentially working in a live-in gift shop. Residents receive an allowance of food and toiletries and profit from handicraft sales, and women wearing brass rings earn an extra salary. While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.”

These practices demonstrate a a desire to define gender roles and maintain beauty and marriageability. Yet, we must consider power dynamics in play, that women (typically mother and female family members) preformed and perpetuated the act of modifying female bodies. Ideas of gender and body modification may inform us how the social structure (those in power) inform individual how to behave. A circular connection emerges: Individuals themselves, be it mothers, female family members, or the males who find these bodily changes desirable, influence and dictated what are the expected ways of behaving. Those behaviors also reinforce the ideals set by those in power.

I have been wondering whether or not I can use human remains from archaeological contexts along with artifacts to investigate identities such as gender. Conkey and Spector (1984) note that gender is a system of social rather than biological classification that varies cross-culturally and changes over time in response to a variety of conditions and factors. Agarwal (2012) also recognizes that gender identify in the past is a malleable and dynamic construction that is not locked in with biology. What is obviously problematic with bioarchaeology and the study of gender is how researchers separate the biologically determined male and female bodies from the socially constructed genders of the archaeological bodies. That is one of the many questions I hope to answer as a graduate student and in my career. Nevertheless, I am confident that navigating this tricky problem to further investigate the links between gender and the human body may inform us on the powerful ways in which identities are created and maintained across cultures and even through time.

Cited Readings

Agarwal, S.C. (2012). The Past of Sex, Gender, and Health: Bioarchaeology of the Aging Skeleton. American Anthropologist 114(2): 322-335.

Conkey, MW. and Spector, JS. (1984). Archaeology and the Study of Gender. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 1-38.

Knudson, K. and Stojanowski, C. (2008). New Directions in Bioarchaeology: Recent Contributions to the Study of Human Social Identities. Journal of Archaeological Research 16:397-432.

Stone, P. (2012). Binding women: Ethnology, skeletal deformations, and violence against women. International Journal of Paleopathology 2:53-60.

Reischer, E., Koo, K.S., 2004. The body beautiful: symbolism and agency in the social

world. Annual Review of Anthropology 33, 297–317.

Scott, E. (1999). The archaeology of infancy and infant death (Vol. 819). British Archaeological Reports Limited.

Sofaer, JR (2006). Body as a Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Why Anthropology Matters (now more than ever)


Excited chatter echoes down the second floor corridor as a group of middle school girls approaches the door to the osteology lab. The young women file into the lab wide-eyed, curiously craning their necks to see the rows of bones on the shelves and tables. “Are those real?” They ask, pointing to a row of skulls or the complete skeleton on the table, “are those someone’s bones?”

Typically, I begin these GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) workshops by introducing myself and welcoming them to the New Life in Buried Bones workshop. Today, I tell them, you all will learn about the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites and in forensic cases. Using the examples of bones with dental disease and cranial modification, I show these young women how human bones inform us on ancient life. They always love to hear gory forensic cases, so I make sure to include a few examples of blunt-force trauma and gun-shot wounds. For those interested in medicine or biomechanics, I give demonstrations of how repetitive motions to two joint surfaces can result in boney changes and sometimes even osteoarthritis. Every once in a while, one girl will exclaim that she also wants to be a bioarchaeolgist or a forensic anthropologist when she grows up.

Today, this workshop felt as if it would be different. Today, my enthusiasm felt strained. I had spent the last few days deliberating over what I was going to say to these girls. I could not simply pretend that everything was okay. It certainly wasn’t. I could not think of words eloquent enough to express how distraught I felt. Today, it was my job to stand in front of these young women and tell them that her education was one of the most important things she’ll ever have. She shouldn’t feel discouraged when she fails, or when her peers let her down. I was supposed to tell her that the bullies don’t win in the end. Hard work and critical thinking are invaluable. Being bold, imaginative, and fearless is what leads to innovation and discovery. The world is full of its problems, but she has the ability to tackle the most insurmountable challenges. Pursuing science, I would tell her, is one way to do that.

Today, those words felt hallow, flippant, and simply untrue. I should be thinking of ways to encourage and inspire these women, but instead, in light of this week’s election, I was plagued with memories of all the troubles I had when I was their age. I thought of the bullies, male peers who harassed me for answering questions in class or commented on my appearance, as if that had something to do with my value or intelligence. How was I supposed to tell them that no matter how impressive her accomplishments, there will be that person who attempts to discredit her, belittle her, and make her feel worthless? Worst of all, how am I supposed to tell her that all of these problems are simply a phase, and that things will get better after middle and high school? She has a bright future, I should tell her. She would be accepted to university based on her merits. But would always be someone there, a real or fictions demon on her shoulder whispering in her ear that she only got in because she’s a woman, a woman of color, an immigrant, a LGBT? I shudder to think of those who said similar things to me (and I enjoy more privilege than most); those men who said or implied that I took their spot, that being a woman gave me a competitive edge they did not enjoy. Forgot that maybe my successes meant I was qualified. Someone had to be blamed, and I was the unlucky winner.

As much as I wanted to unleash my own frustrations, I knew that was not the best way to proceed. I am sad, I am angry, but I am certainly not going to back down and admit defeat.

Instead, I will look to my greatest comfort: anthropology.

What is anthropology? I ask the young women.

“The study of human bones!”

“The study of ancient societies!”

“The study of artifacts and archaeology!”

“The study of culture!”

You are all correct, I tell them, these are all important aspects of being human and they are intimately interconnected and manifest in infinite, fascinating ways. Anthropology is the science of human beings. We have the tool kit of a scientist: we ask questions, formulate hypotheses, make observations of the evidence, and evaluate our results. Our goal is to understand the complexities of human nature, why humans do what we do. It is during that fascinating, fulfilling, and sometimes frustrating journey that we discover how valuable and rare our open-mindedness and thirst for understanding is in the world.

My fellow anthropologists, all you linguists, cultural and medical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and primatologists, you know this. And it thrills me to call you my friends and colleagues.

But to those who are unfamiliar with what I do, this is for you. Anthropology is not simply an intellectual oddity tucked away in the ivory towers of university campuses. It cannot be buried in piles of jargon-heavy books and articles, though that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried. Studying the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life enables us to understand why diseases spread and why crops fail. This science of human nature allows us to explore why societies commissioned art to inspire creativity or to evoke a sense of the divine. Anthropology explores how empires expand and collapse. It does not shy away from discussions of race, gender, and colonialism; in fact, it confronts these debates head-on, challenging us to critically evaluate our past mistakes so that our future is full of thoughtful, well-informed decisions. To an anthropologist, why early humans migrated out of Africa, over Beringia, and went to the moon seems almost obvious. Humans are wired to look to the horizon, across oceans, and up at the night sky: we want to go beyond our known world to see what lies just out of reach.

Anthropology has comforted me these last few days. Hatred and fear are simply the symptoms of ignorance, and it can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and unchallenged. To be an anthropologist is to understand human similarities and differences. We do not hate the unknown nor fear the challenges of this ever-changing world. Instead, we build connections with our global community and to the past by studying cultures, ancient societies, and their material correlates; we do not build walls. Anthropology is a discipline that has the power to understand who we were. It is more important now than ever that we recognize that anthropology also has the indispensable power to help us decide who we are and who we want to be.

So today, as I looked at those excited, hopeful, bright young women in the osteology lab, I tell them I decided to study anthropology because I wanted to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex, beautiful world around me. In the words of Ruth Benedict, I tell them, “the purposes of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

Death without Weeping: Maternal Bonds towards Deceased Offspring among Non-Human Primates

Nonhuman primate mothers do not weep in response to death of their infants. When a non-human primate mother has her offspring, she has already invested considerably time as well as physical and metabolic energy to gestation and birth of the infant. Death of an infant, therefore, is detrimental to the mother who already invested in her offspring, as well as the group’s genetic continuity. Whether or not the death of non-human primate mother’s offspring elicits an emotional or affectionate response is more difficult to identify.


Primatologists have long acknowledged the importance of death of a primate for calculations of demographic trends and constructing life tables (Altman and Altman, 1970). Studies of behavioral responses to death among rhesus macaques include elevated grooming levels between group members, possibly to counteract the loss of a group member. The living also engaged with the deceased by grooming, inspection, as well as aggression towards the corpse (Buhl et al., 2012). Female hamadryas baboons show increase in stress hormone levels after the death of a conspecific (Engh et al., 2006). Studies of chimpanzees group responses to pre- and post-death care of members of their cohort indicate that behaviors typically include close inspection and tests for signs of life at the moment of death, male aggression towards the corpse, all-night attendance by family members, cleaning of the corpse, and even avoidance of the place where death occurred (see Goodall, 1977, Anderson et al., 2010, and Biro et al., 2010).

Whether or not there exists a general trend of maternal responses to primate death remains poorly understood. The mother-offspring bond is considered to be one of the longest and most essential social bonds among mammals (Cronin et al., 2011). The maternal reposes associated with the permanent, premature disruption of this social bond—the death of the offspring—has rarely been investigated (Cronin et al., 2011). Early primatological studies documented male responses to dead infants among semi-free-ranging Barbary macaques (Merz, 1978). A long-term study of wild geladas from Ethiopia recorded 14 cases of dead infants being carried by females was the first attempt to explore responses to death in non-human primates, focusing on allomaternal-like behavior towards dead infant (Fashing et al., 2010). Primate death and behavioral responses from group members have also been documented from several sites, including the Gombe, Tai Forest, and safari park in Scotland (Teleki, 1973; Boesch and Boesch-Achermann, 2000; Anderson, 2011, respectively).

Primatological studies have documented instances when mothers continue to handle the corpses of their infants. Given this prolonged interaction, I wonder, does maternal attachment continues after the death of her offspring? If so, what triggers this particular behavior?


Before I examine the behavioral responses to infant death, it is important to briefly describe what is considered “normal” mother-infant behavior among primate. Mothers and their infants represent a central focus of interest for other females in the group among species and groups of social primates (e.g. Hrdy 1976; Seyfarth 1976; Altmann 1980; Nicolson 1987; Maestripieri 1994a). Females visibly show their interest in interacting with newborn infants. When new infants are present in a group, subadult and nulliparous females approach the mothers and attempt to sniff, investigate, and pick up the young infants (Nicolson 1987). Females also have been observed grooming the mother in exchange for handling her new infant (Altmann, 1980, O’Brien & Robinson, 1991, Muroyama, 1994, Di Bitetti, 1997, Silk, 1999).

While female attraction to infants represents a common feature of primate species, maternal response to infant handling shows a certain degree of variability (Nicolson 1987; Maestripieri 1994b). Maternal responses to infant death have been attributed to several ecological and circumstantial explanations as well as several hypotheses in the primatological literature:

  • Unawareness of Death Hypothesis (Hrdy, 1999)
  • The Decomposition Hypothesis (Fashing et al., 2011)
  • Post-Parturient Condition Hypothesis (Kaplan, 1973; Biro et al., 2010)
  • “Learning to Mother” Hypothesis for Learning about Death (Warren and Williamson, 2004

Unawareness of Death Hypothesis

Extended carrying of a dead infant may indicate that the mother is unaware that her infant is no longer alive. According to the hypothesis, primate mothers of recently dead infants continue interacting with her infant exhibiting behaviors typical of new mothers, such as grooming and licking. For example, Kaplan (1972) recorded responses of captive female squirrel monkeys that were presented with the corpses of their dead infants. The infants had been dead for approximately two weeks. The mothers seemed unaware that their infant was no longer living, yet attempted to retrieve the corpse by lifting it or administer vocalizations regardless (Kaplan, 1972). However, these experiments do not simulate a situation that would occur in the squirrel monkeys’ natural environment. The mother’s infant was immediately retrieved after its death, which denied the mothers an opportunity to interact with her infant post-mortem.

Contrary to the hypothesis, there are examples of maternal behavior that shows the mother continues handling her infant while also exhibiting behaviors indicating that she is fully aware that her infant is no longer alive. A white-faced capuchin mother continued to groom and lick the body while trying to repel carnivorous insects from the corpse. She also allowed her dead infant to be fully submerged in water while she drank. Once she finished, she retrieved the corpse, and continued to transport her dead infant for several days (Perry and Manson, 2008). Similarly, chimpanzee mothers from Bossou, Guinea, appear to be aware that the bodies of the infants they carried were inanimate, and adopted carrying techniques not normally used with healthy juveniles (Biro et al., 2010).


It is possible that uniparious mothers are unable to differentiation between living and non-living offspring due to a lack of experience. Studies have shown, however, that number of living offspring does not necessarily contribute to the duration for which in infant corpse is handled. Two multiparious snub-nosed monkey mothers carried and handled their dead infants for 4 days and one month. The mothers had had infants previously, and therefore could differentiate between normal, responsive infant behavior and abnormal, unresponsive infant behavior (Li et al., 2012). Similarly, multiparious chimpanzees mothers have been documented carrying their infant’s corpses for longer compared to the chimpanzee mothers carrying the corpse of their first and only offspring (Biro et al., 2010). Warren and Williamson (2004) also noted that two multiparious gorilla females also continued to handle their infants long after their death. Whether or not a primate mother is nulliparious or multiparious does not appear to influence how long she continues to interact with the corpse of her infant.

Overall, it appears that the unawareness of death hypothesis does not adequately explain the mechanism of maternal behaviors towards dead offspring. Continued handling of her infant does not necessarily suggest that she is unaware that her infant is not longer living; rather, the mother may be prolonging the separate from her infant for another reason.

The Decomposition Hypothesis

According to the decomposition hypothesis, any long-term carrying of the infant by the mother does not represent a sense of loss or attachment to the infant. Rather, mothers are unaware of the infant’s death and continue to carry the corpse until clear signals of decomposition (e.g. particular odor cues) indicate death (Fashing et al., 2010). Extreme climate conditions (such as cold or hot arid weather) slow the natural rate of decomposition of deceased bodies (Haglund and Sorg, 1997). Prolonged carrying (defined as longer than 10 days) of an infant corpse appears to be more likely in extreme climatic conditions, particularly in cold or hot arid weather, that naturally slows decomposition of infant body (Fashing et al., 2010).

Several studies of primates living in extreme climate conditions have supported the decomposition hypothesis. Gelada monkeys (Theropithecus gelada) of Guassa, Ethiopia, live in an extreme climatic condition that favors a slower rate of decomposition of dead individuals. Over a 3.75 year-long study period, 14 mothers carried and handled their mummified infants for 10 or more days. Extended carrying of dead infants has been documented among mountain gorillas that inhabit unusually cold environments (Fashing et al., 2010b, Nakagawa et al., 2010, Vedder, 1984) and chimpanzees living in extremely arid regions with a long dry season of Bossou, Guinea (Biro et al., 2010, Matsuzawa 1997).


The decomposition hypothesis is based on another assumption that New World primates in tropical environments appear only to carry or care for dead infants rarely or for only a short period of time. For example, a tufted capuchin mother was reported to carry her dead infant for less than 24 hours after an infanticide attack (Izar et al., 2007). This behavior, however, may be due to the social dynamics of infanticide, rather than the maternal indifference towards her dead infant.

Despite the climatic circumstances that delay decomposition, primates have been documented to carry infants for a long enough period that the body does eventually decay. In this case, signs of decomposition, such as putrefaction and change in the infant’s appearance (e.g. loss of fur and limbs) do not repel mother and, in some cases, other kin and non-kin. For example, Bossou chimpanzee mothers as well as related and unrelated individuals from all age groups of both sexes attempted to handle, lift and drop limbs, and sniff the bodies of three dead infants. Juvenile and infants were even allowed to carry the bodies of infants some distance from the mother in bouts of play. Biro and colleagues (2010) state that they never observed a response that could be interpreted as aversion, despite the bodies’ intense smell of decay and usual appearance of mummified skin and missing fur.

Similarly, four female mountain gorilla continued to carry their dead offspring even when the corpses lost their hair and heads, and despite the pervasive smell of decaying flesh (Warren and Williamson, 2004). Observations made by Rumbaugh (1965) of captive squirrel monkeys in San Diego, California, noted that a mother continued to handle her infant for six weeks as the corpse began to putrefy. Over a 24-year study period of Japanese macaques, a total of 157 mothers continued to carry their dead infants between 1 to 17 days despite the quick progression of the decomposition, and the putrid smell and swarm of flies surrounding the dead infant and the mother (Sugiyama et al., 2009). In this case, however, non-kin avoided the mother and her dead infant, seemingly due to the smell, and she received less social grooming that before their infants had died (Sugiyame et al., 2009). Sugiyama and colleagues (2009) state that they cannot determine why mothers continue to carry the corpses given its bad state of decomposition. It is apparent, however, that mothers do not necessarily abandon their offspring due to aversion.

It is possible that “caretaking” behaviors rather than the environmental setting facilitates mummification. In the study conducted by Biro and colleagues (2010) in Bossou, Guinea, three chimpanzee mothers continued to carry the mummified corpses of their infants for 19, 27, and 68 days following their death, exhibiting extensive care of the body by grooming it regularly, sharing her day and night nests with it, and showing distress whenever they became separated. The mothers also chased away flies that circled the corpses, twice with the aid of a tool (Biro et al., 2010).

In sum, the decomposition hypothesis has several flaws. Infant handling is not limited to primates living in unusually arid, cold regions. In fact, mothers continue to handle their dead infants even though the corpses admit olfactory and visual signs of putrefaction and decomposition. Overall, it seems that the foul odor of decomposing flesh does not appear to deter mothers from transporting and manipulating corpses. Oftentimes, this “care-taking” behavior seems to (unintentionally?) preserve the offspring. Yet, this treatment towards dead infants will be explored in the post-parturient condition hypothesis.

Post-Parturient Condition Hypothesis

Post-parturient condition hypothesis proposes that postpartum hormones influence maternal behaviors toward dead infants. Physical characteristics and particular hormones are essential for the onset and maintenance of infant-carrying behavior and the development of the mother–infant bond towards living infants (Kaplan 1973; Biro et al. 2010). Neuroendocrine mechanisms and physical characteristics of the infant (such as natal attractiveness) stimulate and regulate motherly behavior to care for and protect her offspring (see Maestripieri, 2001, 1991). At birth, an infant’s attractiveness includes size at birth, vocalizations made by the infant (e.g. “purring” noises), infantile facial expressions, distinguishing morphological features such as bug ears or tail tufts, and distinctive coat color (Hrdy, 1976).


Human, non-human primate, and non-primate mammal studies demonstrate that there are endocrine influences on mother-infant interactions and the formation of bond post-partum (Maestripieri, 1999). In non-primate mammals, pregnancy and lactation hormones enhance maternal responsiveness and behavior although they are not strictly necessary for their onset or maintenance (Stern, 1989). In New World monkeys such as red-bellied tamarins (Saguinus labiatus) and common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus), there is evidence that hormones influence both responsiveness to young during pregnancy and quality of maternal care during lactation (Pryce et al., 1993). Studies of group-living pigtail macaque females show that the females increased their rate of interaction with infants during the final weeks of pregnancy that corresponded with an increase in plasma levels of estradiol and progesterone (Maestripieri and Wallen, 1995; Maestripieri and Zehr, 1998). Fleming and colleagues (1997) showed that human mothers who maintained high levels of estradiol over the parturitional period also had higher feelings of attachment to their own infant in the early postpartum days than mothers whose estradiol levels dropped. Thus, these studies indicate that primate and human parenting is partially influenced by physiological variables.

The continued interaction and gradual separation between the mother and infants’ bodies appears to also be a by-product of hormonal condition of pregnancy and the formation of the mother-infant bond in post-parturient female primates. Behavioral studies note that mothers do not simply abandon the corpse of her dead infant. Rather, the mother continues to interact with the corpse, gradually separate herself physically from the body of her dead offspring.

There are several physiological characteristics that may be observed in female primates that indicate that hormone levels are fluctuating and therefore influencing her behavior. Postpartum amenorrhea in chimpanzees lasts around four years, but is shortened with the death of an infant (Wallis, 1997). The infant could no longer breastfeed and lactation ceased, triggering the mothers’ reproductive cycle to return.

To date, there are no studies that directly link changes in hormones during the mother’s transition from handling her infant until the moment she abandons its. Therefore, the post-parturient condition hypothesis relies on behavioral studies. Several behavioral studies report that mothers gradually separate herself from the corpse of her infant. For example, gelada monkey mothers also experience a graduate separation that includes a transition from only the mother handling the infant corpse, and then allowing other group members to handle to deceased juvenile (Fashing et al., 2010).

The post-parturient condition is best illustrated by observations conducted at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwest Zambia (Cronin et al., 2010). Shortly after the death of her infant, the mother transitioned from maintaining close, constant proximity to the dead body to creating physical distance from the deceased infant (Cronin et al., 2010). She maintained visual contact with the body when not in immediate proximity to it. As time passes, mothers transition to lessening her contact with the body and allowing others to inspect the body (Biro et al., 2010; Hosaka et al., 2000). Other studies have also reported that chimpanzee mothers gradually transition from extreme attachment to the body of their dead infants immediately following death to weakened attachment to the body as time passes (Hosaka et al., 2000, Biro et al., 2010).

Ring-talked lemur (Lemu catta) mothers have been reported to continue to return to their dead infants several times for several hours after the infant’s death. Every time each female returned to the body, she would sniff, lick, and touch the infant (Nakamichi et al., 1996). Despite the increasing distance between the troop and the deceased infant, the mothers continued to return to her dead infant, even when the troop have moved 400 meters away from the corpse (Nakamichi et al., 1996). Six of the seven mothers attempted to lift the corpses, and one mother clumsily carried the corpse 15 meters and attempted to jump into a tree. Mothers were unable to maintain proximity between both the troop and the corpse concurrently because she was not able to carry her dead offspring (Nakamichi et al., 1996).

The post-parturient hypothesis appears to most adequately examine the mechanism of maternal handling and carrying of deceased infant remains. Carrying and handling a corpse after death expresses a strong attachment, and the gradual separation of mother from her dead infant are behavioral responses to hormonal changes. Whether or not death of an infant elicits a psychological or emotion response is difficult, possibly impossible to identify. To compliment the hormonal-centric tenants of the post-parturient hypothesis, I will explore literature that contemplates whether or not the prolonged carrying and handling of corpses is part of process in which primates “learn” about death.

“Learning to Mother” Hypothesis for Learning about Death

Studies of maternal responses to death among apes provide additional information investigating whether or not the extended interaction with infant corpses is a period during which primates engage in a learning process. The “learning to mother” hypothesis was first proposed by Hrdy (1976) to explain why female young and non-mothers interact so frequently with offspring. Warren and Williamson (2004) adapt this hypothesis to a population of mountain gorillas to illustrate that the prolonged handling of dead infants is a type of social learning for mothers, young, and non-mothers to acquaint themselves with cues typical of death.

Ateles geoffroyi vellerosus Spider Monkey Central America mother and baby

Primatologists have investigated the long-term benefits of young and non-mothers carrying living infants. The handling of live infants by non- mothers has been referred to as aunting, baby-sitting, kidnapping, play-mothering, allomaternal behavior, or allomothering (Hrdy, 1976; Maestripieri, 1994a, 1994b). According to the ‘‘learning to mother’’ hypothesis, young or nulliparous females who handle infants gain maternal experience, and recalling these skills later in life, making them more capable of raising their own offspring (Hrdy, 1976).

The benefits of “learning to mother,” could be gained with a corpse, since the motor skills required to carry an infant while traveling and foraging could still be acquired (Warren and Williamson, 2004). Furthermore, the extending carrying behavior by the mothers, as well as related and unrelated individuals, may be an example of observational learning that promotes prolonged transport of deceased young (Biro et al., 2010). These interactions with a corpse could be part of a process in which the primate learns to recognize death.

Observations of mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Rwanda, noted that two nullparious mothers in their final months of pregnancy, and two mothers who had recently lost offspring all handled and transported the mothers’ two dead infants (Warren and Williamson, 2004). As previously discussed, the hormonal disposition of the mother may contribute to the continued handle of her infant after death. The hormonal state of pregnant females similarly predisposes her to interact more frequently with infants, even ones that are recently dead. It seems it may be both an innate change in her physiology as well as an opportunity to practice handling infants.

Similarly, Cronin and colleagues (2010) suggest that chimpanzees handle and examine the body of deceased infants in order to recognize cues of a corpse and therefore “learn” about death. Studies conducted at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwest Zambia, recorded that one chimpanzee mother touched the body and face of her dead infant, presumably an action that would have provided olfactory and gustatory information about the infant’s condition (Cronin et al., 2010). Every time she returned to the infant’s corpse, she would closely inspected its face and neck. Cronin and colleagues (2010) suggest that close inspection of the face could serve as the best location to assess the condition of the infant. No changes in eye gaze, breathing, or facial musculature could inform the mother that the infant’s condition had irreversible changed (Cronin et al., 2010). The mother was actively gathering novel sensory information about the dead infant, possibly remembering this information for the next time she encountered the same set of cues. In other words, the mother may have been “learning about death.” (Cronin et al., 2010: 420).

Whether or not prolonged handling of infants is indicative of a “cultural” behavior towards death that is passed on throughout the group and through generations may be impossible to prove. Yet, some researchers suggest that the transmission of knowledge for handling of dead infants that occurs throughout multiple generations and occurs among multiple members of a group may indicate that this learning and knowledge may be transferred (see Cronin et al., 2010; Warren and Williamson, 2004; and Biro et al., 2010). For example, three chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea, all had infants that died during the study period and all exhibited a similar manner of prolonged handling of dead infants. Biro and colleagues (2010) suggest that the similarities in treatments and behaviors may not be a rare occurrence in this particular community. In fact, the prolonged handling may part of the culture of that particular group. In sum, the learning to mother hypothesis provides an intriguing framework in which primatologists may explore prolonged infant handling among the great apes.

Mother-Infant Bonds and Learning to Grieve?

Overall, it appears there is continued attraction and care towards dead infants occurs to some extent in all major taxaonomic groups (Anderson, 2011). Both the decomposition and unawareness of death hypotheses seem insufficient to explain why primate mothers continue to handle the corpses of offspring after death. Contrary to the unawareness of death hypothesis, primate mothers appear to handle their infants in ways that suggest they are aware that their offspring is no longer living. Similarly, primate mothers continue to handle their dead infants regardless of the environmental setting (arid verses humid) and despite putrefaction and decomposition of the corpse.

The post-parturient condition hypothesis, on the other hand, considers both the behavioral and hormonal responses of primate mothers across primate taxa. The formation of the strong mother-infant bond at birth does not simply disappear once the infant dies; rather, it seems that the mother transitions from physiological conditions typical of motherhood (e.g. cessation of lactation amenorrhea) is concurrent with the mother’s gradual separation from and abandonment of her deceased infant.


It is particularly interesting that mothers slowly allow conspecifics to handle the corpse, and that recognition of particular cues that signal death may illustrate that young and non-mothers are “learning” to recognize death. Whether or not the handling of dead infants should be considered cultural learning is difficult and potentially impossible to identify. Given that multiple mothers of a particular group of chimpanzees and gorillas all exhibited similar behaviors in response to the death of their infant indicates that the behavior may be contributed to both physiological and social influences.

Studies of primate death are greatly biased towards chimpanzees, but long-term and behavioral studies of gorillas, baboons, and new world monkeys are also becoming more common. Overall, primate behavioral and hormonal studies indicate that continued handling and interaction with infant corpses signifies a connection between the mother and her offspring, even if the offspring has died.


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Forensic anthropology Methodologies: Excavations of Mass Grave sites with Comingled Skeletonized Remains

This week I will explore how forensic anthropologists determine whether or not a human rights violation occurred by utilizing particular techniques developed by forensic practitioners as well as interdisciplinary methods used by archaeologists. Forensic archaeologists employ a variety of methods when excavating mass graves, paying particular attention to whether or not individuals were buried or reburied multiple times by examining the placement and position of the victims’ remains, the associated artifacts, and taphonomic changes to the bone. Collection of evidence and detailed description of mass graves are necessary to reconstruct the events that transpired and ultimately to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Forensic teams investigating human rights violations enlist the help of a forensic archaeologist, who is trained in identifying how a gravesite was formed, filled, and concealed, along with taphonomic alterations to the gravesite and the humans remains.

There are several questions a forensic archaeologist must answer while excavating mass grave sites

How many bodies it takes to constitute a “mass” grave?

-Need only two or more bodies

-Actual examples in Croatia created after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia: 3-750 bodies

-Yet, a grave containing one individual does not necessarily mean that a human rights violation did not occur

So what constitutes a “mass” grave? 

Main definitive factor: nature of the body deposition and manner of which bodies were handled that reflect disrespect. They are distinct from other mass burials in which bodies are carefully placed, indicating a degree of care or at least forethought

How do forensic teams describe gravesites? Is there a gravesite typology?

There is a general typology forensic archaeologists follow when identifying, describing, and excavating mass gravesites

Execution site: location in which multiple individuals are executed; possibly see skeletal materials, bullet cartridges, shredded clothing, human blood and tissue fragments visible on either the ground surface or obscured by grave put or a similar feature intended to inter the human remains and other relevant evidence of a crime

Temporary surface deposition sites: characterized by the presence of residual clothing, personal effects, blood, and bone fragments; the body or bodies were once at this site, and then moved to another location after execution, possibly in an attempt to better hide the crime. Skeletal remains may exhibit taphonomic changes (i.e. weathering, sun-bleaching, insect cases, carnivore damage).

Primary inhumation site: An intentionally constructed pit in which to dispose bodies; typically contains multiple individuals who have been executed and interred soon after death and who share a related cause and manner of death; note that the PIS may be located far from where the victims were killed; human remains disposed in a disorderly manner and associated with evidence of execution, such as bullets and shrapnel; there should be no taphonomic changes, as there should have been no disruption of the natural decomposition process (expect to see “feather-edging” when the peripheral bodies of the bod mass are less preserved than those in the core of the assemblage)

Secondary inhumation site: Remains are removed from the primary inhuman site and moved to a clandestinely created grave; typically, transporting the materials usually results in disarticulation of the skeletal resulting in a disarticulated and commingled remains in a secondary inhumation site

Robbed or looted inhumation sites: Once the remains have been removed from a primary inhumation gravesite, the gravesite is then defined as a “robbed or looted inhumation site.” Usually the perpetrators clandestinely remove the remains for the purpose of creating a secondary inhumation site known to a minimum number of informants. The RLIS will include: clothing, hair, ballistics, and other items small enough to be left behind

This type of grave in particular is important to international tribunals because it assists in linking and reconstructing the sequence of events experienced by the victims

How do forensic archaeologists handle skeletonized human remains?

An additional goal is to maximize collection of disarticulated and commingled skeletal remains in the best possible condition

There are two primary excavation methods: pedestaling and stratigraphic, or “basin” method. The pedestal method focuses on exposing the body or bodies; stratigraphic, or basin method in which the excavator maintains the integrity of the grave features (i.e. grave walls) and its contents

Tuller and Duric (2006) found that the stratigraphic method 1.) had a lower number of unassociated bones; 2.) better maintained the provenience and articulation of remains and 3.) higher recovery rate of smaller bones compared to the team using the pedestal method

Case Study: “Ethnic Cleansing” of Northwestern Bosnia

The anthropological protocol implemented during the investigation mass graves is illustrated from the excavations of mass graves from the “ethnic cleansing” of Northwestern Bosnia in 1992. Hundreds of individuals were disposed in an open cast mine in Northwest Bosnia after being removed by a mechanical excavator from a primary burial site. The perpetrators relocated the remains to a new site, an open cast mine in northwestern Bosnia, and were not particularly systemic or careful with the exhumation, resulting in unnecessary disarticulation of the remains (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). In the second burial site, one of the walls in the pit was blown up with explosives, causing an avalanche of rubble and rocks that covered the slope, which damaged and caused mixture of the bodies (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). When the Bosniak Commission on Missing Persons excavated the bodies in 2001, it was crucial for the forensic practitioners to recognize that the final burial site was, in fact, not the primary burial pit and that the remains were interred multiple times and were even subject to taphonomic changes not related to the actual crime (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). Additionally, the stratigraphic, “basining” excavation method of the primary burial site revealed that the grave pit itself was man-made, suggesting that the disposal of the individuals was premeditated and the perpetrators attempted to hide their transgression (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006).

In sum, archaeological field methods combined with the goals of forensic anthropology specialty affords practitioners and individuals investigating crimes against humanity the opportunity to scientifically investigate mass gravesites. Reconstructing the events that transpired and determining whether or not a mass killing was premeditated together may provide strong evidentiary support for a crime against humanity.

See articles for more information: 

Baraybar, P., & Gasior, M. (2006). Forensic Anthropology and the Most Probable Cause of Death in Cases of Violations Against International Humanitarian Law: An Example from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Journal of Forensic Science , 51 (1), 103-108.

Jessee, E., & Skinner, M. (2005). A typology of mass grave and mass grave-related sites. Forensic Science International , 152, 55-59.

Schmitt, S. (2002). Mass graves and the collection of forensic evidence: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In W. Haglund, & M. Sorg (Eds.), Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives (pp. 277-292). New York: CRC Press.

Skinner, M. (1987). Planning the archaeological recovery of evidence from recent mass graves. Forensic Science International , 34, 267-287.

Skinner, M., Alempijevic, D., & Djuric-Srejic, M. (2003). Guidelines for international forensic bio-archaeology monitors of mass grave exhumantions. Forensic Science International , 134, 81-92.

Tuller, H., & Duric, M. (2006). Keeping the pieces together: Comparions of mass grave excavation methodology. Forenic Science International , 156, 192-200.

the individuals was premeditated and the perpetrators attempted to hide their transgression (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006).

In sum, archaeological field methods combined with the goals of forensic anthropology specialty affords practitioners and individuals investigating crimes against humanity the opportunity to scientifically investigate mass gravesites. Reconstructing the events that transpired and determining whether or not a mass killing was premeditated together may provide strong evidentiary support for a crime against humanity.

This week in anthropology

Map of Native American tribes you have never seen before 

Mayan cities rediscovered in the Yucatan 

Subway in the sky, new cable car system to link La Paz with El Alto on the plateau 

Peruvian artisans win cash award for weaving in textile contest 

Lessons from the last time civilization collapsed 

“Consider this, if you would: a network of far-flung, powerful, high-tech civilizations closely tied by trade   and diplomatic embassies; an accelerating threat of climate change and its pressure on food production; a rising wave of displaced populations ready to sweep across and overwhelm developed nations. Sound familiar?”

Archaeologists uncover first mass grave from 14th century bubonic plague outbreak, Barcelona


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Are Neanderthals human? Scientist discuss whether or not Neanderthals belong with homo sapiens 

Pre-Columbian mycobacterial genomes reveal seals as a source of New World human tuberculosis

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European man’s remains found in ancient Chinese tomb

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This week in anthropology, archaeology, bioarchaeology, and bioanthropology

Rare crusade era seal found in Jerusalem 

Chile: Students find 7,000 year old Chinchurro mummy 

Enhanced images reveals paintings at Angkor Wat 

Long lost mummy of Pharaoh AmenotephII’s foster brother found in monastery near Pisa, Italy 

Grave find may be Western Europe’s earliest human tooth 

Court rules on final resting place for Richard III’s, London

First contact with European’s through indigenous eyes

Hidden Wari tomb reveals a treasure trove of undisturbed remains, Peru 

Villager dips fishing net in river and caught Bronze Age/4,000 year old pagan god, Turkey 

Climate change doomed the ancients 

What can you do with a humanities Ph.D.? 

Is species extinction happening 1000 times faster because of humans? 

Access to environmental education must be part of a positive future for Virgunga, its communities and wildlife 

3D model of Richard III’s spine reveals spiral scoliosis 

8 extreme body modifications from around the world 

East Lothian skeleton may be 10th century Irish Viking king 

Man’s hormonal condition was “eating” his finger bones 

Iran’s old “dwarf city” captivates visitors 

Whatever happened to the great apes of Europe? Went extinct around 7 million years ago 

This week in anthropology, bioarchaeology, and archaeology

Love, sex, and marriage in ancient Mesopotamia 

How to talk to an archaeologist 

The 3 letters of recommendation you must have, via The Professor is In 

Scientists plan DNA test of Inca Ice Princess Juanita, Peru 

Archaeologists discover Pre Columbia mural in Tambo archaeological complex, Pisco providence, Ica, Peru 

National Geographic: Sican culture one of history’s greatest civilizations 

Scanners at British Museum looks inside the heads of ancient mummies 

In an experimental process, Italian scientists have strengthened degraded skeletal fragments said to be relics of St. Clement from the late Middle Ages by growing calcium carbonate crystals on them

Skeleton executed by sword blows to the head poses questions about Norman Conquest 

Archaeologists examine untouched tomb of wealthy Wari woman, Peru 


Investigated red-colored bones  and burial practices in Mesoamerica