PhD Dissertations: Zhang, Hua Grace , 2016

Human Osteoarchaeological Research on Stress and Lifeways of Bronze Age populations in North China

 

Abstract

Integrating three projects, this dissertation focused on the analysis of human skeletal remains to better understand human adaptation and lifeways in Bronze Age North China. During this time, China witnessed dramatic sociocultural changes in the Central Plain caused by urbanization and represented by the large city centre in Anyang, while pre-urbanization lifeways such as nomadic subsistence practice remained unchanged in some parts of Northeast China. Human skeletal remains, often well-preserved in North China, provide unique opportunities to examine osteological evidence to evaluate human responses to these sociocultural changes.

The first project analysed oral health indicators (caries, abscesses, AMTL, and pulp chamber exposure) in three Late Bronze Age (ca. 3000 – 2000 B.P.) skeletal populations (n=187) from the Central Plain and Northeast China. The results clearly showed that deteriorated oral health was observed in agriculture-based subsistence. The second project assessed impacts of early urbanization on 347 commoners of the Late Shang (ca. 3250 – 3046 B.P.) in Anyang. High frequencies were observed in all the commoners for enamel hypoplasia but significantly different frequencies were found between groups or sexes for cribra orbitalia or osteoperiostitis respectively, indicating overall high levels of stress, likely derived from early urbanization and different stress responses by different groups and sexes. The last project evaluated the prevalence of osteoarthritis in 193 adult remains of the Late Shang in Anyang (ca. 3250 – 3046 B.P.). The observed pattern showed a clear sex difference of osteoarthritis distribution, suggesting a strong gender division of labour. An extremely high frequency (at 92%) of metatarsal-phalangeal osteoarthritis caused by kneeling (repetitive hyperdorsiflexion of toes) indicated that kneeling was most likely a prescribed cultural component in daily life and activities. This speculation is consistent with the observation that kneeling as a symbol appeared in many oracle bone characters of the time.  

This dissertation research has provided new regional perspectives for bioarchaeological studies of subsistence practice and social dynamics of the past, and it has also demonstrated when positioned within rich archaeological contexts, human remains can provide unique insight to enhance our ability to study human environment interactions of the past.