The discipline of anthropology consists of four major fields; linguistics, archaeology, cultural anthropology and medical or biological anthropology. Each of these four fields contribute unique and varied insights into the greater advancement of anthropology. Biological anthropology, also called medical anthropology, focuses on the study of human remains. The field includes areas of research such as primatology, palaeopathology, bioarchaeology, and the study of hominines. The study of physical anthropology allows researchers to better understand human health and development in the past and present. There are many scholarly organizations that seek to further our knowledge of physical anthropology. One such organization is the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology or the BABAO. As a relatively new organization, (founded in 1998), the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology serves as a bastion of anthropological discussion and research.
The study of human remains and fossils can provide us with an idea of what life was like in the distant (or not so distant) past. The form of the human body, its cranial shape, long-bones such as the femur and humerus, vertebrae and teeth can provide researchers with insights into how an individuals life was led. The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology’s support of paleopathology can lead to greater collaboration between medical anthropologists and archaeologists. In the summer of 2014 as well as earlier this summer, I was part of the Michigan State archaeological excavations at Morton Village, Illinois. As an archaeologist, much of what we know about the diseases and medical issues experienced by the people of Morton Village can be credited to the diligent work of medical anthropologists. Due to biological research, we now know that many of the Mississippian and Oneota peoples that populated the central Illinois river valley around 1300 AD suffered from a multitude of anemia’s and even had to cope with a significant number of tuberculosis outbreaks.
While the study of human remains is vital to our understanding of our own species, it is important to treat the remains with great care and respect. BABAO prides itself on its ethical standards and practices. Human remains contain vast amounts of information but at the end of the day, ethical considerations must be given to the reburial and repatriation of our ancestors. Laws such as NAGPRA here in North America and organizations like BABAO exist partially to remind researchers of their ethical obligations to the subjects of their research. That being said, the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology maintains certain circumstances where the retention of human remains for further and future research is the correct course of action for the betterment of science.
With the help of organizations such as the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, physical anthropologists are able to present and share their research and provide a unique insight into the study of the human past and present in a way that the other three fields of anthropology cannot. The information obtained through the study of human remains provides scholars, as well as the greater public, a wealth of information about the lives of our ancestors.