The Leper Warrior: Persistence of Racial Terminology in Biological Anthropology

A few months ago, the news media carried a story about "Bones of Leper Warrior found in Medieval Cemetery" in central Italy.  The publication by Mauro Rubini and Paola Zaio was in early view at the time and was just published in the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science (see citation below). I noticed that Katy Meyers blogged about it today over at Bones Don't Lie, but I'm afraid I can't be as charitable as she is in pointing out the flaws.

8th c Avar Warrior
(credit: Wikimedia commons)
Rubini and Zaio studied skeletons from 234 graves in an early Medieval (6th-8th century) cemetery in Molise (south-central Italy).  Based on grave goods, they suggest that the people buried in the cemetery were of different ethnic backgrounds - the Eurasian Avars, Lombards, and indigenous Italians - and were semi-nomadic.  Three of the skeletons appear to have warfare-related wounds, and one of the three also suffered from leprosy in life.  The authors therefore conclude that the three were "warriors from the East."  The finding of a "leper warrior" is actually quite interesting, and I'll return to this at the end.  But there is one very problematic feature of this article that quite frankly surprised me, considering the high profile of the journal and the research caliber of the first author.

The authors offer no evidence to back up their claim that the cemetery was the burial place of people of different geographical origins, aside from the off-hand statement that "the multicultural context of the necropolis is shown by the presence of Lombard, indigenous, and Asian grave goods" (p. 1552).  Sure, different populations may have different artifacts, but the presence of, say, "typical Avar stirrups" does not prove an individual's ethnicity or background, nor does the similarity of the graves to "Pazyryk burials in the placement of the horse, body and grave goods" (ibid.).  As every bioarchaeology student knows from reading The Archaeology of Death and Burial (Parker Pearson 1999), a grave and its associated goods is much more likely to represent the values and mores of the group burying a person than of the person himself.  It's rather curious that Rubino and Zaio include a lengthy explanation of the fact that the Avars were not a distinct ethnic population but rather were "a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic population [... and] a union of multiple cultural patterns" (p. 1551) immediately before talking about the distinct "Asian" (whatever that means) presence in the Campochiaro cemetery.

Especially problematic is Rubini and Zaio's claim that the Lombard/Avar/indigenous classification is "supported also by the preliminary anthropological study of the skeletal sample" (p. 1552).  The study is not specified here, but in the authors' later description of the three graves of interest, the questionable analysis becomes clear (pp. 1554-6):
Grave n. 20 (see Fig. 3) Individual of male sex, with age at death over 55 years. Height was estimated at about 161.5 cm. The skull shows, according to the suggestions of Corrain (2002), characteristics of Mongolic type: dolicomorphous with a superior profile of ovoid shape, flat face and large, low orbit. 
 [...] Grave n. 102 (Fig. 5) Individual of male sex, with age at death 50-55 years. Height was estimated at about 169.7 cm. According to the suggestions of Corrain (2002), the skull shows characteristics of the Dinarico-Adriatic type: brachimorphous with superior profile of ovoid shape and narrow frontal.

[...] Grave n. 108 (Fig. 7) Individual of male sex, with age at death over 50 years. Height was estimated at about 161.1 cm. The skull shows a mesomorphous shape with a long and narrow face.
Just as biological anthropology in the U.S. in the 19th century was influenced by Samuel Morton's racist ideology in the construction of biological "types" and "races" (q.v. yesterday's post), biological anthropology in 19th century Italy was influenced by Cesare Lombroso's theory of atavism and "born criminals."  Morton interpreted his data on skull shape to fit his preconceived notions of race, and Lombroso did the same to fit ideas of "criminals," who all too often included the economically disadvantaged south Italians (Killgrove 2005).

Within biological anthropology in the U.S., we have worked hard to move on from Samuel Morton, Carleton Coon, and the use of the cephalic index in general.  So it always disheartens me when clearly archaic terminology is used to discuss skeletons.  Mongolic and Dinarico-Adriatic types?  Dolico-, brachi- and mesomorphous?  These terms have no place in today's biological anthropology, which is focused on understanding the diversity of the human population, both modern and ancient.  Skulls are not pots - we can't create a typology of cranial features and expect to be able to pick someone's head out of a lineup.  When we do this, we inevitably learn by using alternate methods that inter-population variation is low and gene flow was considerable (e.g., Killgrove 2009).  Classifications such as Dinarico-Adriatic are based on Coon's The Races of Europe (1939), and we've pretty clearly posthumously castigated Coon for advancing segregation in the U.S. in spite of the lack of scientific data to support clear "racial" differences.

There's absolutely no evidence within the Rubini and Zaio article that the three individuals of interest were from another geographic area - skull morphology doesn't cut it, and "ethnic" artifacts in the grave don't convince me either.  Were these "warriors from the East" as the article title implies?  Maybe.  But I'll need to see some aDNA or isotope data to consider the claim to be plausible.

Skull of the Leper Warrior
(credit: Rubini and Zaio, fig. 8a)
What is interesting about the article - and, I assume, the reason that JAS published it - is the authors' finding that a man over the age of 50 who was afflicted with leprosy likely engaged in warfare.  It shouldn't be revelatory that lepers in the past went to war, just as it shouldn't be revelatory that women in the past were active agents in war.  But considering the dearth of evidence we have for this kind of behavior in antiquity (and our own preconceived contemporary Western notions of alpha male warriors as different from frail, sickly lepers and powerless, weak women), the discovery of a warrior with leprosy is quite cool.

While I don't want to take away from Rubini and Zaio's fascinating discovery of the leper warrior, I do want to point out their employment of problematic and archaic terminology in discussing skeletal remains.  It surprises me that in the 21st century, anthropologists are still using these racially-tinged terms, and it surprises me even more that the authors claim they've found "Eastern" people with no real evidence of it.


M. Rubini & P. Zaio (2011). Warriors from the East. Skeletal evidence of warfare from a Lombard-Avar cemetery in central Italy (Campochiaro, Molise, 6th-8th century AD) Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (7), 1551-1559 :

Other References:


All three of these guys are over 50, fairly old for the time. Their warrior days could have ended long ago and the family still buried them with their war gear. Leprosy could have still ended his military career.
Razib said…
" It surprises me that in the 21st century, anthropologists are still using these racially-tinged terms"

there are no "anthropologists," there are italian anthropologists, english anthropologists, american anthropologists, etc. :-) though seriously, norms differ in what archaic terms to use in different national academic cultures. academics from non-english speaking cultures often use words which seem very 1937, and even indian scientists who generally work in english do this. so i don't get your surprise, *conditional* on these guys not being american (i would be surprised if they were). i mean, it's acceptable and sophisticated to use the term "caucasian" in the USA, when that clearly derives from pseudo-scientific terminology of blumenbach. out of curiosity i notice that you used it yourself :-)

from what i have heard the biggest issue in biological anthropology and human genetics crops up when you have people from different english speaking nations collaborating. they will want to veto each other's terminology because different terms are considered un-PC or un-professional. one lead author on a paper on south african genetics told me that he just note a terminological note to explain why the team used the terms they did, because the americans, brits, and south africans couldn't agree on what was, and wasn't, acceptable (the south africans were collecting the genetic material, so they ended up being the final arbiters, even though most of the audience was going to be american).
Razib said…
out of curiosity i notice that you used it yourself

that is, i looked in your archives, to be clear.
Bone Girl said…
@Michelle - Good point. I didn't thoroughly read the article to see if they knew the sequence of events (injury, leprosy).

@Razib - Your point on trends in language is well-taken. We've abolished much of our archaic and race-based terminology in polite conversation, but some terms are still used today (as in "Caucasian" which definitely has a racist pedigree). I may very well have used that term, but I wouldn't have written it in a scientific, academic publication. All academics use different words when talking to their colleagues than when talking to the public.

And yes, the authors of the articles aren't American or native English speakers. But I still think that contributions to a journal should conform to the standards of the journal's audience. Disavowing these terms is not unique to American English, nor to American anthropologists - the British also don't favor them. I can't speak for other anthropologists around the world, but I'll go out on a limb and say that since the majority of anthropological scholarship is in English, an author whose first language is not English should figure out what's appropriate for the venue and the audience. And in this case, I think the peer reviewers should have helped (or perhaps I'm misunderstanding how peer review works).

If I end up revising this entry, I'll decouple my two issues: the archaic terminology is one issue, but the authors' attribution of ethnicity is another. In order to show ethnicity, they obliquely mentioned archaeological remains and then just as obliquely mentioned physical appearance (which I infer was based on the archaic taxonomic classifications they mention). But since I haven't read the original works (on the cemetery or on the skeletal population), I focused the post more on terminology.

Anyway, I guess my "surprise" is that an English-language publication would not take steps to change this article - through peer review, through editors, through not accepting the article. Perhaps it's ethnocentric of me to insist that I am right and no one should use terms like Dinarico-Adriatic anymore, though. I don't know how to solve the problem of different researchers in different countries using different terminology... other than making authors conform to the terminology used (or not used) by other authors within the same publication. That these terms can still be found in the Journal of Archaeological Science is what surprised me the most.
Anonymous said…
There are, unfortunately, still plenty of examples of that type of anthropological thought out there. Placing Europeans into types by country and region:
Kevin Cantu said…
Of course, using DNA evidence, some future anthropologists will inevitably claim to have proved ethnic purities...

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