Buried deep within human history, voices speak to us through the bones of our ancestors. Femurs, incisors and other skeletal remains tell us stories of how well these ancients made their livings, multiplied, dodged disease, got sick, were maimed, and died.
In their grand undertaking, THE BACKBONE OF HISTORY, Professors Richard H. Steckel and Jerome C. Rose, both economic historians and anthropologists, bring together 52 scholars from the disciplines of anatomy, anthropology, demography, economic history, the health sciences, and paleontology, who act as translators of the dialects interred within our bones, and the stories they tell about the evolution of our societies and economies. An important stimulus for this extraordinary scholarship was the work of Cohen and Armelagos and their colleagues (Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture, Academic Press, 1984) that provided evidence through examination of skeletal remains for the decline of human health and longevity in the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural economies. During this period, in the cradle of agriculture, malnourishment was chiefly responsible for a decline in Eastern Mediterranean male heights from 5'10" to 5'6".
In BACKBONE, which focuses on societies of the Western Hemisphere, perhaps the most significant advances on the seminal work of Cohen and Armelagos are the system of common data recording for the many sources from antiquity through the 19th century, and the development of a health index derived from these sources that allowed more valid and reliable cross-sample comparisons. The effect is to provide an elaborate view, by analysis of population trends in a variety of physiological/ecologic responses [skeletal tissue, tooth enamel (linear enamel hypoplasias), anemia that can be read from bones (porotic hyperostosis), infectious disease prevalence (elevation of the fibrous outer periosteal layer of the bone), trauma, osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease, tooth loss and caries], of economic circumstances that would otherwise be unavailable. Additional advances, in comparison with earlier work, are that BACKBONE significantly increases sampling size and diversity across regions and time periods, and incorporates multidisciplinary perspectives.
The nine parts of this complex and "big" book of 636 pages include sections focused on methodology, comparisons between Euro-Americans and African-Americans, Native Americans in Central America, Native Americans in North America and patterns of health in the Western Hemisphere. Specific chapters within these sections focus on the poor in the mid-nineteenth century Northeastern United States, health and nutrition in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, cultural longevity and biological stress in the American Southwest and much, much more. Always, the stories of these people are told from the bones they left behind.
Steckel and Rose's extraordinary contribution, THE BACKBONE OF HISTORY, will be read by virtually every researcher into the nexus between physical anthropology and economic history. It also provides a treasure trove to those more broadly interested in the social sciences, health sciences and human adaptation. These readers may also find of interest Robert William Fogel's THE ESCAPE FROM HUNGER AND PREMATURE DEATH, 1700-2100 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), A. R. Cellura's THE GENOMIC ENVIRONMENT AND NICHE-EXPERIENCE (Cedar Springs Press, 2006) and John Komlos' STATURE, LIVING STANDARDS, AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994).