The Origin of Bioarchaeology

Google just launched a new feature called Books Ngram Viewer, which allows you to track the frequency of words in books published (in English) in the last several centuries. I decided to check out a few terms related to my research: osteology, bioarchaeology, and palaeopathology. The resulting graph of all three terms, going back to 1800, is pretty cool:

Osteology as a term has been around a long time. I'm assuming that most of the usage in the mid-19th century is related to animals rather than humans. My guess is that the giant spike around 1840 represents the foundations of evolution - a time when naturalists were heavily invested in understanding where humans (and modern animals) came from. Since that high point, osteology has declined in frequency, but with a slight bump starting in the 1960s, presumably with the origins of academic archaeology in the U.S.

Taking osteology out of the chart and zooming in to the last half century of bioarchaeology and palaeopathology shows that the latter was in use long before the former. This surprised me, as I had assumed that palaeopathology didn't arise until after bioarchaeology was coined as a term and research specialty. Also surprising is the sharp downturn in palaeopathology and concomitant uptick in bioarchaeology around 2003:

However, the Americans tend to spell it paleopathology (for reasons I'm not at all clear on, since almost all of us now use archaeology rather than archeology - and almost no one spells it bioarcheology). So putting in bioarchaeology, palaeopathology, and paleopathology gives us this graph:

No matter how you spell it, palaeopathology shows a definite downward trend in the last decade. But it is still used more frequently than bioarchaeology - it just has two different spellings. Interestingly, if we assume that paleopathology represents American work and palaeopathology represents British (and ESL work), the Brits have stayed more or less consistent in their palaeopathology work, whereas it represents a large fad in American work, peaking at the end of the 20th century. Alternatively, the explanation could be that it's British journals (such as the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, where they Britishize your Americanisms) that are more balanced in the kinds of research they publish, whereas American journals gave in to a pathology fad. (These data may change with the new International Journal of Paleopathology, though, if the -e- spelling takes off.)

It's also interesting to zoom in on the word bioarchaeology. Bioarchaeology has been attributed to British archaeologist Grahame Clarke, who used the term in 1972 to describe the study of animal and human bones from archaeological sites. Across the pond, though, we attribute bioarchaeology to Jane Buikstra, who used the word in 1977 to describe the practice as it's known in the U.S. today: the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites. What does Google have to say about this? According to the Ngram Viewer, the first use of the word was in 1969, before either Clarke or Buikstra had published their definitions:

Unfortunately, it's not possible to click on the chart and get a list of the books in which the search term was used. That would be an especially awesome feature.

This Google gadget is super fun - and you should try it. Some other recommended search terms: great jargon words like "liminal" (peaked in 1999) and "transnationalism" (peaked in 2002). Post any words you find with interesting graphs in the comments!


Commenting on my own blog here... The NY Times demonstrates the change from "consumption" to "tuberculosis":
Anonymous said…
This is really interesting! Have you tried the feature where you restrict the dataset to the 'American English' and 'British English' corpus, respectively?

Also, and unfortunately, Google Books has some serious problems with its metadata, such that many books are mis-dated, especially journals or other serials. Not sure how that would affect your data though.

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