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.”