Recent trends in Near Eastern and Cypriot human bioarchaeology

The numerous excavations conducted in the Near East – limited to the west by the Mediterranean Sea, to the southwest by the Red Sea, to the southeast by the Persian Gulf, to the north and east by the Taurus and Zagros mountains, according to Aurenche and Kozlowski (1999) – and Cyprus produced large quantities of human skeletal remains. Despite this, ancient populations were, until recently, poorly understood in terms of mortuary practices, demography, activity patterns, diet, pathological conditions and genetic relatedness. There are several reasons for this situation: a lesser interest of investigators in “post-Palaeolithic” finds; the conditions of preservation of osteological collections, which were often dispersed in different institutes; and finally, the choice, fortunately increasingly rare, to restrict anthropological analysis to an appendix of the expected monograph of the site excavation.

For many years, skeletal analyses in that region have focused mainly on cranial metrics and typology. One of the first publications to analyze skeletal remains in relation to their environmental and cultural contexts was the article titled “Porotic hyperostosis, anemias, malarias, and marshes in the prehistoric Eastern Mediterranean”, published by Angel in 1966 (Rose 2017).

In 2007, a new online journal titled “Bioarchaeology of the Near East” was founded, aiming to promote research on the history of human populations from Southwestern Asia and on interactions between humans and their environment in the region. The journal represented a desire to include a comprehensive presentation of research on human, animal and plant remains, according to the European use of the term bioarchaeology. By contrast, bioarchaeology in the United States refers to a population-based approach to human remains, constantly adding new methods of study (Buikstra 1977, Buikstra and Beck Lane 2006).

It should be noted that only in 2010 the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE), held in London, included a specific workshop (Human remains in the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean: Advances, problems and potential) dedicated to studies of human skeletons. If such a workshop could be held, it meant that human remains started to be considered as an integral part of the archaeological findings. It is also around 2010 that review articles and regional syntheses regarding the human bioarchaeological studies concerning the ancient Near East and Cyprus began to appear (e.g. Harper and Fox 2008,  Abu Dalou et al. 2014, Sheridan 2017, Gamble 2021).

Even more recently, Nikita and colleagues developed an open-access bibliographic database for human bioarchaeological studies in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (Nikita et al. 2021). By compiling the references of publications dedicated to human skeletal remains from Near Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean archaeological contexts, the database Bi(bli)oArchrepresents a significant advance for human bioarchaeology in these regions, the anthropological publications being scattered on a great number of supports and consequently often difficult to find. It shows a progressive increase in the number of publications (regarding activity, ancient DNA, biodistance, demography, diet, isotopes, metrics, mobility, nonmetrics, pathology, stature, taphonomy) from the 19th century to the end of the 20th century,  with  a sudden increase from 443 to 960 between the 1991-2000 and the 2000-2010 decades (Nikita et al. 2021). It also shows an interesting geographical distribution of the publications, the Levant being one of the most studied areas from a human bioarchaeological point of view (fig. 1).

Fig 1: Number of bioarchaeological papers per region (data from Bi(bli)oArch).

Indeed, in the last few decades, research in the human bioarchaeology of this part of the world has intensified and provided new insights in the study of the history of human populations. Significant advances have been made with regard to the reconstruction of the lifestyle of these populations and collaborative projects involving biological anthropologists as well as specialists of other fields are currently being developed. Indeed the development of approaches such as archaeothanatology – which is considered as bioarchaeology of mortuary behavior by Knüsel and Schotsmans (2022) -, nutritional approaches or paleogenetics has led to new and very promising results.

Archaeothanatology 

The objective of ‘archaeothanatology’, that developed in France in the early 1980s, is to reconstruct the attitudes of ancient populations towards death by focusing on the study of the human skeletons and analyzing the acts linked to the management and treatment of the corpse (Duday et al. 1990, Duday 2006). The approach is based upon detailed analysis of the skeletal and other remains within the burial. Taking into account the interactions between all the elements of the grave, it notably allows a close reconstruction of funerary gestures including burial position and the chronology of the deposit of grave goods (fig. 2). It began to be used in the Near East and Cyprus in the late 1980s (e.g. Le Mort 1994a and 1994b) and it gaining ground in the region, whatever the study period (e.g. Ortiz et al. 2013, Elias 2016, Gleize et al. 2018).

Fig. 2: Reconstruction of a funerary ritual at Khirokitia (Cyprus, 7th-6th millennium BC). Taken from one of the panels exhibited on the site (Ó French archaeological mission at Khirokitia).

Nutritional approaches and ancient DNA analyses

As far as the Near East and Cyprus are concerned, nutritional approaches based upon the analysis of human remains are not numerous but, on the one hand, stable isotope analyses are now developing as shown by the many publications which have appeared in recent years, leading to very promising results for various periods and regions (e.g. Irvine et al. 2019, Stantis et al. 2019, Budd et al. 2020, Sciré-Calabrisotto et al. 2020, Itahashi and Yoneda 2022). And on the other, one can note that a special issue of Paléorient was recently published (Le Mort and Tillier 2021), focusing on the evolution of diet and health status in relation to the major societal changes that appeared between the beginning of the sedentary lifestyle and the Early Bronze Age in the Near East and the nearby regions (i.e. Eastern Mediterranean, South Caucasus) (fig. 3). The aim of this volume was to benefit from the experience the contributors gained in different settings and to stress that analyses of diet and health status represent a meaningful component of archaeological and anthropological research, especially for the periods marked by profound changes in lifestyles, such as the beginnings of agriculture. The articles in this volume present recent innovative studies based on the analysis of human bones and teeth. In addition to direct observations, these studies use various analytical techniques (electron microscopy, medical imaging allowing access to internal structures, three-dimensional reconstruction, stable isotope analysis). They yield essential information about the structure, morphology, diseases, dietary practices, activities and cultural habits of past populations in the studied area.

Fig. 3: Recent thematic issue of a pluridisciplinary journal of prehistory and protohistory of Southwestern and Central Asia.

Ancient DNA analyses are rare in this area. According to the data available in Bi(bli)oArch, they represent less than 2% of the total number of bioarchaeological papers. At present, they are developing mainly in Anatolia and the Levant (e.g. Haber et al. 2020, Skourtanioti et al. 2020).

To conclude, the increase of new dynamic field and laboratory investigations has led to a series of important advances in the knowledge of past populations of the Near East and Cyprus. Research in the various fields of biological anthropology, using quite more or less recently developed analytical techniques, is progressively becoming an integral part of the study of the history of human populations inhabiting Southwestern Asia and Cyprus.

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Authors

Françoise Le Mort is a CNRS research director in the UMR 5133 Archéorient at Lyon. Her research has mainly concerned the funerary practices and biology of ancient populations in the Near East and neighbouring regions.

Anne-Marie Tillier is an emeritus CNRS research director in the UMR 5199 PACEA at Pessac. Most of her research has been on the first Homo sapiens in the Near East and the emergence of funerary practices in the southern Levant.

Pour citer ce billet : Françoise Le Mort et Anne-Marie Tillier. Recent trends in Near Eastern and Cypriot human bioarchaeology, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 15 avril 2022, [En ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/18271

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