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, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/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.

Anatomy and Behavioral Strategies of Human and Nonhuman Primate Parturition

In March of 2000, Sofia Pedro’s village in Mozambique was ravaged by floods. People were forced to higher grounds to avoid the floodwaters, and many people, including the heavily-pregnant Sofia Pedro, were climbed to shelter in the treetops. She was trapped in the tree for four days. On the third day, she gave birth to her daughter, Rositha.

Giving birth in the treetops is unusual for humans, but not for many primate species.

Stories like Sofia’s are particularly interesting because they pose the question: are humans unique in that they alone experience difficulties during birth? Do both human and nonhuman primates therefore adopt methods and strategies to minimize the risk and maximize survival of themselves and their offspring?

In other words, is there a gap in human and nonhuman primate parturition behavior?

To investigate the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman primate parturition strategies, one must examine 1.) the Anatomical characteristics to examine the physical difficulties humans and primates face when giving birth and 2.) Parturition strategies, in other words, how human and nonhuman primates manage birth and improve probability of survival of both the mother and infant.

Anatomical Characteristics 

The human and nonhuman birth canal divided into three transverse planes: the inlet, midplane, and outlet (fig. 1). Each plane is described as being either longest at either the anterior-posterior diameter or widest at the transverse diameter. Each plane may be aligned, meaning all three planes parallel to one another, or misaligned, the planes are perpendicular to one another, with the greatest diameter varying among the three planes

Figure 1. Pelvic inlet, midplane, and outlet

In the genus Pan birth canal, for example, the anterior-posterior diameter exceeds the transverse diameter. In Australopithecine (specifically A. aferensis) the pelvis inlet transverse diameter exceeds the anterior-posterior diameter, resulting in a platypelloid shape (i.e. a flat, oval shape). Among humans the three transverse are all misaligned; the inlet is widest transversely, and the outlet widest anterior-posteriorly; thus creating two perpendicular planes.

Figure 2. Comparison for the mechanism of birth in Pan, A.L. 288-1 (Australopithecus aferensis) and Homo (Tague and Lovejoy, 1986: 247)

The Australopithecine birth canal is an example of how useful it is to reconstruct and understand changes in birth and parturition among human and nonhuman primate ancestors.

Australopithecus serve as one of the earliest sources of fossil material for examining early human bipedalism, and for the purpose of this post, mechanisms of birth.  The cranial capacity of Australopithecus similar to that of modern chimpanzees. Pelvic and limb morphology indicate Australopithecines was bipedal, not but obligatory like our hominid ancestors. Australopithecines also had an increase in shoulder breadth co-occurs with bipedalism, helping with balance.

Australopithecine birth canal would have restricted fetal head rotations at all levels within the canal. Yet, the birth canal was adequate to allow passage of a neonate’s cranium only if the infant’s head entered with its occipital bone oriented transversely with ansynclitism, meaning the neonatal head tilted towards its left or right shoulder, and exited without rotating. The shoulders which followed probably would not have been able to pass through without changing orientation.

It is more difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether or not Australopithecines gave birth in solitude, among conspecifics, or sought attendants to assist with birth. Trevathan (1987) suggests that the presence of attendants at childbirth has been part of the genus heritage for at least one million to two million years, originating with encephalization in our linage. Hominid ancestors would have been able to give birth without assistance, but having that assistance and support would have made the difference between life and death for mothers and their infants. A slight reduction in mortality would lead to selection for the behavioral characteristic of seeking companionship during parturition, resulting in its widely universal distribution in the modern human species.

Anatomical Features of Human and Nonhuman Primate Birth

Sherwood Washburn referred to the human birth as the “obstetric dilemma,” resulting from the shrunken dimensions of the human birth canal mandated by the mechanical requirements of upright bipedal locomotion and the evolution of progressively larger human brains (Washburn, 1960). Among humans, the fetal head must be flexed as it passes underneath the subpubic arch/pubic symphysis, with the occiput against the pubic bones, the frontal bone passing along the concave anterior surface of the sacrum.  The infant’s head then emerges from the canal occiput anterior: meaning that the infant generally emerges from the birth canal facing the opposite direction from the mother.

Primate mechanism of parturition is slightly more difficult to investigate because observations and accounts of primate births in the wild are scarce. Primatologists who have observed primate births note the difficulties in differentiation between pregnant and non-pregnant females until the pregnant female is actually in labor. Also, some primates give birth nocturnally, thus lower the changes that they will be observed, and some even seclude themselves in the foliage of trees during parturition. Among greater apes, the spacious birth canal and large body size allow for the neonate to easily navigate the birth canal. Small-bodies primates and lesser apes (Ateles), proboscis monkeys (Nasalis), macaques (Macaca), and lesser apes or gibbions (Hylobates), have a smaller head-to-body proportions, thus potentially complicated the birthing process. In her PhD dissertation, Stoller (1995) examined radiographs of laboratory animals during parturition showed that squirrel monkey and baboon neonates entered the birth canal in various positions, but then rotate to exit face first, facing the maternal pubic bones with their heads in an extended position.

Human Primate Birthing Strategies 

Humans have adopted many strategies to combat the risks and difficulties in childbirth, one of which is seeking assistance from medical professionals or family members during the birth. Humans do have the ability to give birth without assistance, yet today many women giving birth prefer not to do it alone. Before the advent of modern obstetric care, pregnancy and childbirth were risky and dangerous, and the complex anatomical features involved in parturition predisposed humans to certain conditions, such as obstructed labor, which could result in a myriad of injuries to both the mother and infant (Roberts and Mancester, 2007; Arrowsmith et. al., 1996; Wall et. al., 2005). Thus, many women in developed societies view childbirth as an event to be managed with the presences of a trained professional using technological intervention (Liamputtong. 2007) to ensure that their pregnant bodies and fetuses are completely controlled, and therefore, safe (Liamputtong, 2007). To be sure there are benefits in having a trained medical professional present at the birth.

Obstructed births are a common complication humans face, one type in particular is shoulder dystocia, which occurs when the shoulders are unable to pass through the pelvis after delivery of the head when the neonate is too large and the pelvis too small. The typical medical intervention is a surgical incision to remove obstruction, which may be dangerous as it sometimes results in tearing or hemorrhaging, either of which might cause permanent damage or be fatal to the mother, infant, or both. Midwifes, on the other hand, adopt different strategies to combat shoulder dystocia: typically the maneuvers the parturent mother into different positions to widen the birth canal.

Birth positions in particular vary cross-culturally. Even though the semi-upright positions of kneeling and sitting are the best positions for parturition, the supine position is the most common in developed countries where birth typically occurs in a hospital. It is possible that many women do not have the stamina to remain in kneeling or sitting position for the length of time usually required to deliver a child. The supine position allows the medical professional to have optimal access to the birth canal as well. Interestingly, Friedman (1978) found that in general, the upright position is optimal for increasing intra-abdominal pressure and the diameter of the pelvis. Women who were upright in a seated or semi-reclined position during labor had a shorter labor length compared to women in a supine position (Friedman 1978).

Many women assign certain meanings to the birthing process; they feel a sense of achievement and pride in their ability to cope with intense pain. Mayan women living in Guatemala stated that they accept pain as an obligation of a woman’s life, and consider it a point of pride to confront the birth with stoic dignity and courage. In fact, the indigenous word for birth (patan) literally translates into “burden.”

Expressing and vocalizing any pain was, to some women, considered shameful because they believe such actions like screaming diverted energy needed to give birth. This is particularly true for Chinese women, who are also expected to use soft voices and demonstrate quiet demeanor during parturition.

Parturition Behaviors Among Nonhuman Primates 

Anatomically, it appears that the mechanism of parturition varies between primate species, specifically between large bodied and small-bodied apes. When scholars opine that primates have little to no problems during parturition, they do not consider the extrinsic challenges primates encounter when giving birth in their natural habitat. Observations of baboons reveals that females give birth among conspecific group members. Squirrel monkeys give birth within their group as well as a form of cooperation against predators, anti-predator vigilance, and defense of neonates. Among Chimpanzees, Goodall (1971) noted that pregnant females become more solitary as parturition approaches. Among some primates, females seek seclusion and take advantage of the tree foliage that provides a natural protection from terrestrial predators (Rosenberg and Trevathan 2002). In a study published in Primates in July 2014, primatologists observed a bonobo birth for the first time, and found that the parturent female was accompanied by two other females who, according the researchers, were “offering companionship and support.” After the birth, the mother as well as the so-called birth attendants all consumed the placenta.

Primate births may be diurnal verses nocturnal; in fact, primates give birth at times of day that offer the lowest predation risk. Among squirrel monkeys labor may being at dawn, and if the infant has not been birthed by daytime, labor will spontaneously stop and start again during the appropriate time, most likely during dusk.

Primates also maneuver into positions to widen pelvis, particularly among smaller-bodied primates with a very close caphalopelvic fit (e.g. macaca mullata). Primates also express pain when giving birth. Patas, Rhesus macaques, and bonobos have been observed having pained looks on faces and express said pain with vocalizations. Breeched births might occur among primates with a close cephalopelvic dimension, such as macaca mullata, rhesus macaques, spider monkeys.

So How Wide is the Parturition Gap?

The mechanism of birth appears to be more complex for humans, small-bodied primates, and lesser apes than compared to larger-bodied, greater apes. Humans opt to seek assistance during birth and while primates sometimes opt to give birth among group members, it is unclear whether or not primates actively seek birth attendants. Primates maneuver in positions optimal for birth while humans in medicalized cultures give birth in a less optimal, supine position; maybe humans should consider a primate model for birthing positions! Both human and nonhuman primates experience pain when giving birth, yet humans are unique in that they assign cultural meaning to their pain.

In sum, both face similar challenges when giving birth, yet the adaptive methods to overcome those challenges varies between species worldwide. It seems to be that the parturition gap between human and nonhuman primates is not a wide gap after all.



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This week in Anthropology, Forensics, Biological Anthropology, and Primatology

Shifting evolution into reverse promises cheaper, greener way to make new drugs

If humans used animal mating rituals

Peru has recovered over 8000 stolen cultural artifacts in the last seven years 

Spanish potsherds evidence of battle between Spanish and Native Americans on Great Plains 

Early Roman irrigation system uncovered in Britain 

10 oldest diseases like smallpox, cholera, and pneumonia 

Science compared every diet and the winner is no one 

UNESCO praises Peru’s work in combating illicit artifacts trade   

Tattoo discovered on ancient Egyptian mummy 

Scientists digitally unwrap mummy of Egyptian priest Neswaiu

Skull tower, a monument built along the road to Constantinople, served as a warning to anyone rising against the Ottoman Empire

Forensic anthropologist in El Salvador excavates and identifies victims of gang murders 

Shipwrecks archaeologists would love to find, from the Minoans to a shipwrecked Egyptian pharaoh 

Egyptian wine grape guard’s contract decoded   

Centuries-old grills of ancient BBQ lovers founding Turkey  

In Borneo, archaeologists are discovering vessels called “dragon jars” that sometimes contain bones of the dead 

Emperor Claudius dressed as pharaoh in newly uncovered carving 

The last taboo: what makes male humans and chimpanzees power hungry 

Quinnipiac students help investigate a possible Santeria ritual

Hey person in photo, that is not a right femur, why people need osteologists

Women in prehistory, who made this hand impression? 

Pre-Inca tomb discovered under the house of writer Mario Vargas Llosa  

Medical first: 3-D Printed skull successfully planted in woman 

Discoveries challenge beliefs on human arrival in the Americas 

Black death was airborne, not spread by fleas, research says 

Alaska’s real life “Bones” scientists puzzles out violence in ancient societies 

DNA sequencing of human remains paints a complicated picture of human evolution