December 28, 2010

How many skeletons exist in the world?

Yesterday's New York Times article ("Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate") presents a balanced and digested view of the current debate about the frequency and prevalence of cancer in antiquity. It's good. You should read it. What really caught my eye, though, is the report that Anne Grauer (head of the Paleopathology Association) estimated there are 100,000 skeletons in osteological collections around the world.

That's it?

If we look at the figures cited in the Global History of Health Project at OSU, we find that the researchers proposed collecting data on about 60,000 skeletons from the western hemisphere and that they think they can get height data from 100-150,000 people when adding in the grey literature. It could be that Grauer's 100,000-skeleton estimate was in some way geographically or temporally limited and wasn't reported as such in the NYT.

My interpretation, though, is that this figure demonstrates just how little bioarchaeologists share information, particularly with respect to their collections. My estimate of the number of skeletons curated in Rome by the archaeological superintendency is in the neighborhood of 10,000 (the cemetery at via Basiliano, for instance, generated over 2,000 skeletons alone). Add to this the 2,000 or more skeletons from other largish Italian collections (such as from Isola Sacra), and that's over 10% of Grauer's figure coming from Rome and its suburbs alone. The Peabody Museum at Harvard has either the largest or second largest collection of Native American skeletal remains in the U.S., at somewhere around 10,000. So now we're at roughly one-quarter of Grauer's figure - without adding skeletons from Peru, England (at least 17,000 at the Museum of London alone), Germany, and even the Parisian Catacombs (pictured above), where there are extensive collections of human skeletal remains.

It's unfortunate that we bioarchaeologists tend to know only about the major collections in our geographical/temporal area of the world. The cause of this ignorance is partly that most of us don't look further afield for comparative populations but partly that many of us aren't very forthcoming with information about our collections. Cultural patrimony is difficult to legislate (as we've seen in the past 20 years with NAGPRA in the U.S.), so I doubt that within my lifetime there will be a worldwide database of osteological material. Until something like this exists and is required to be updated, we'll have to continue to make our best guesses about the number of skeletons in the world's osteological collections. My guess? Grauer may be off by a factor of three or four. Still, considering around 100 billion people have ever lived (and died) in this world, we have a shockingly small number of their physical remains.

6 comments:

Patrick said...

I don't understand why you think a database is infeasible within your lifetime or even within a few years. Such a database doesn't have to solve any questions of cultural patrimony. It just has to aggregate public/published information. Perhaps the most useful thing it could do is get links to osteological papers and contact information in one easy index.

I can't decide if it should be a research project---find papers that reference collections, and contact authors to fill in the details---or a wiki. Either way, it has to start with enough critical mass to be acknowledged as the definitive source of information, and it has to be publicized enough that outsiders contribute information, or at least respond to the maintainer's requests for information.

Seems like something that could be (or start with) a solid master's project and/or a great contribution by a junior professor. ;)

Bone Girl said...

First, I would estimate that a large fraction of the skeletons in museum (and other) collections worldwide are not published. With the backlog to publication time (e.g., many Roman cemeteries excavated a decade ago haven't been published owing primarily to lack of academic/museum funding), a database of published material would be years out of date.

Second, it would be necessary to convince people - not just bioarchaeologists but museum directors, university presidents, and legislators - that sharing at least basic information about skeletal collections (MNI, age, sex) is beneficial to everyone. Even among academics of our generation, there is suspicion about, for instance, the academic jobs wiki. Not everyone is committed to the opening up of information and, by extension, scholarship. And some people may be legitimately concerned about their cultural patrimony: if you share information about your skeletons, you invite queries from outsiders to study it. And it may not be possible to answer these queries because of a lack of academic infrastructure to support either intramural or extramural research: lab space, personnel, transportation of remains, etc.

I did link in my post to an online database of sorts that does just what you are proposing - aggregates publications of skeletal collections (http://skeletal.highfantastical.com/). But I suspect these are user-contributed and not a gleaning of the bioarchaeological literature in an attempt to document at least what has been published. So that would perhaps be a good MA thesis.

The main reason that I think a worldwide database of skeletons won't happen in my lifetime is because different cultures: 1) view skeletal remains differently; 2) speak and publish in a variety of languages; 3) use different methods to assess even basic demographics; and 4) are suspicious of open access to information. I don't think it's as easy as attempting to convince the osteologists themselves to contribute to this database - rather, we also have to convince our superiors in academia and government that it is necessary to collect and disseminate information and that we need the proper lab facilities and personnel necessary to do it.

I hope my prediction is wrong, but that's why I think a worldwide database will be a long time in coming.

Anonymous said...

Remains of nearly 200,000 Native American individuals have already been documented in U.S. based museums, including Federal agencies, state and private museums, and the Smithsonian as part of the NMAI/NAGPRA repatriation process.

Sarah McManus said...

Hi! I'm the webmaster of the skeletal collections database you linked to. When I created the database I searched the anthropological literature (JFS, AJPA, etc.) and googled for any mentions of skeletal collections. I think I did a fairly thorough search, but I'm sure there's plenty I'm still missing. Since I created it, I have gotten emails from professionals providing additions to the database.

I want to note that research section of the database isn't complete. I haven't had much time to devote to the website lately, and I know there are lots of articles I haven't added yet. Like with the collections themselves, I've also gotten emails from people with articles to add.

Thanks for mentioning the database. The more people that know about it and contribute missing information the more complete it will be.

Bone Girl said...

Thanks for your comment, Sarah, and for doing the legwork of researching and setting up a database! I'm sure your search was excellent - as I mentioned in the post, in many places, skeletal collection information only exists in grey literature or isn't published at all. It can be frustrating for a bioarchaeologist to find a comparative collection because this knowledge is held in the minds and personal computers of one or a few people, not shared widely.

I'm still not sure how to get people involved in a database of the sort you run. We've got to overcome centuries of academic suspicion about sharing data and being "scooped", and that's not an easy task. Good luck, and thanks again for undertaking such a difficult task!

Scott Leger said...

Hello , this is a very informative post i like it, thanks to Google that help me to find something interesting. Really this is very nice and Interesting.

The number of skeletons are increasing day by day. I would like to tell something here, Actually Recently I finished "Physical Anthropology and Archaeology", this is a nice book. I like to find about Archaeology and Anthropology like books , Images, secrets and famous places that are related to Archaeology and Anthropology. In this book i like " How We Discover the Past " very much.

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