Race and bioarchaeology: what else can we do with human remains?

Sexual dimorphism in Egyptian crania
Sexual dimorphism in Egyptian crania

On the Archaeology of Portus course this week we’ve been looking at the People of Portus. Analysing human remains is an extremely delicate process, both practically and ethically. Archaeologists take any activities associated with human remains very seriously. It wasn’t surprising that Andrew Dufton’s post about the Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets course also included reference to these ethical issues. In this post I wanted to make a link between the studies you have seen at Portus and some of my own research.

Following the recent publication of a very controversial book by Nicholas Wade, the issue of ‘race’ is, again, a hot topic within anthropology. Biological anthropologists are almost unanimous in their view that race as a biological entity does not exist. The genetic variation between groups of humans is insufficient to meet the requirements of the biological requirements for a subspecies, which is what race would require to have biological foundation. There is therefore a clear difference between the colloquial understanding of race in terms of skin colour and the biological definition of what comprises subspecies distinctions. In a biological sense, race does not exist; race is a social construct, which for most people, both today and in the past, is usually based upon arbitrary and superficial differences in skin colouration.

There are, however, differences between humans that can be recognised biologically, but these do not map directly on to skin colouration. If one studies people from Nigeria, England and China, there are differences between them, but the biology and genetics of these location-based groups do not reflect the populations of the entire continents of Africa, Europe and Asia (which are Wade’s proposed “continental races” of Africans, Caucasians and Asians). Anthropologists have clearly demonstrated that there are no genetic patterns that link all the populations within a continent to the exclusion of populations in other places. Hence there is no biological basis for race. But there are differences between groups of people, with much of this variation reflecting gene flow. As a result, there is a strong correlation between geographic distance and genetic difference in human populations.

Aspects of this patterning and relationship between geographic distance and biological difference have been studied in a variety of different human skeletal series, including my own work looking at human variation along the Nile Valley. The Egyptian study showed that, although there was some migration along the Egyptian Nile Valley, there was overall population continuity over the period of the formation of the ancient Egyptian state. This means that the development of the Dynastic period occurred as a primarily indigenous Egyptian process.

Zakrzewski, Sonia R. (2007) Population continuity or population change: formation of the ancient Egyptian state. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 132, (4), 501-509.