Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bioarchaeology helps identify origins of a people

Christopher Stojanowski “reads” bones to understand the past and its peoples and the Arizona State University bioarchaeologist, who specialises in dental anthropology, is able to extract information from human remains that tell a great deal about that person’s life, as well as his or her cause of death. Inherited physical features, injuries, disease and nutrition are among the facets Stojanowski deciphers when examining a skeleton.

Expanding that approach to a collection of remains, he is able to piece together the origin and “life-path” of an entire people.

“Ethnogenesis – the emergence of a people – is a complex topic and not typically considered in bioarchaeology,” said Stojanowski, who is an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Stojanowski focused his work in two areas: North Africa and the Southeast United States. He promotes the fact that evolutionary research does not have to be historical and descriptive. He explained,“You can use evolutionary analyses to say something a bit more humanistic about the human past”

Recently his research on the early Christianised indigenous peoples of the American Southeast is beginning to attract attention; this is a subject he was first drawn to after working on a field school at a Spanish Mission outside Tallahassee, Florida.

His research in this arena forms the basis of his latest book, “Bioarchaeology of Ethnogenesis in the Colonial Southeast,” awarded the 2011 Southern Anthropological Society’s James Mooney Prize, which recognizes distinguished research on the American South and its peoples.

The book revolves around data Stojanowski gathered from cemetery remains and then analysed to trace the evolving social identities of Native Americans living in Florida’s Spanish missions during the 17th century.

Applying biological, social and historical lenses to the material, he brings to light patterns of epidemic disease and population decline, slave raiding and fugitivism from the Spanish missions. He makes the case for native Catholic populations of Florida being subjected to prejudice by the Spanish and English, as well as England’s indigenous allies, which led to the forging of a common social experience and gave rise to the development of a Seminole identity during the 18th century.

Stojanowski now intends to use the same methodology and concentrate on the people of North Africa. “While working with historic populations has been interesting, I can’t help but think about the fact that most of human existence was spent in smaller hunter-gatherer societies, and my work in North Africa focuses on these peoples,” he stated.

Though his specialisation is in the Americas, Stojanowski notes that his research in one region informs the other. “Much of the work on Spanish colonial Florida relates to declining health with agriculture and Spanish contact,” he said. “In North Africa, there is a nice parallel where the shift from food collecting to food production entailed increasing mobility and a focus on cattle pastoralism rather than settled agricultural villages, as in the Near East.”

Stojanowski continues to work on refining methods of analysis with respect to inherited features of the bones and teeth. He teaches courses on a number of topics, from human evolution to forensic and dental anthropology.

He continues to work on the short and long-term effects of microevolution and demography on human community formation, manifestations of identity and ethnicity and transformation in community organization. His research focuses on both colonial period processes of tribal ethnogenesis and long-term relationships between cultural and biological variation. Stojanowski’s interest in modelling long-term relational processes requires use of archaeological data.

For more information:

  • Christopher Stojanowski
  • Stojanowski, C.M. (2010). Bioarchaeology of Ethnogenesis in the Colonial Southeast. University of Florida Press.
  • Knudson, K.J. & Stojanowski, C. M. (editors) (2009). Bioarchaeology and Identity in the Americas. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
  • Stojanowski, C. M. & Duncan, W.N. (2008). Anthropological Contributions to the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs. Occasional Papers of the Georgia Southern Museum, Macon,GA: Georgia Southern Museum.
  • Ethnogenesis (Wikipedia)


    Past Horizons. 2011. "Bioarchaeology helps identify origins of a people". . Posted: June 30, 2011. Available online:
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