Politics of the Urban Body: Bioarcheological Studies of Ancient state

Session Type: 
Session Date and Time: 
Thursday, 25 April, 2024 - 10:30 to 12:00
Primary Organizer: 
Bridget Bey - Washington University in St. Louis, Sewasew Assefa
Email address: 

The application of multiscalar approaches to the study of urban societies (through the lens of diet, life history, reproduction, ect.) helps explore the causal relationship between ancient states and ancient people. Shifts in state power affect institutional structures, such as politics, economics, religions, but also alter important aspects of everyday life, such as social hierarchy, movement, labor, and diet. Urban environments can create or exacerbate physiological stresses resulting from the nested relationships between the individual, their immediate environment, and the larger sociopolitical climate. The interplay of different social identities at the individual level is associated with structural inequalities that produce and maintain social, political, and economic disparities as well as their subsequent health outcomes. The bioarcheology of urban societies provides a framework to connect the material record of the state with the lived experience embodied in human skeletal remains and associated cultural material. In this session, we present recent scholarship on the bioarcheology of ancient urban states from Peru, Kenya, China, and Egypt.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
Haileselassie Assefa
, Sewasew - Washington University in St. Louis

Urban environments can create or exacerbate physiological stresses resulting from high population density, sanitation issues, and the more explicit socioeconomic gradient limiting access to resources. Moreover, the broader processes that lead to urbanization shape diet and health of those in the urban environment but are experienced differently according to age, gender, status and religion. Urbanization of the East African Coast (EAC) during the Iron Age (1st c. BCE – 10th c. CE) and Islamic periods (10th – 15th c. CE) is associated with an increasingly hierarchical society impacting resource distribution. By thinking about the EAC, through the lens of embodiment, I examine the effect of sociopolitical changes on the health of individuals of various identities including age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Individuals from Mtwapa, Kenya included in this study provide a rare opportunity to understand the heterogeneity of health outcomes in the EAC at the individual, local and regional levels.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
, Bridget - Washington University in St. Louis

Around the world, the shift towards more urban environments coincided with an increase in childhood morbidity and mortality, which consequently impacted rates of growth and development throughout childhood and adolescence. To analyze the effect of urbanization on puberty in the late pre-Hispanic Andes (800-1500 CE), I explore the relationship between development and stress/disease patterns from three Peruvian skeletal collections. I present data on 217 individuals, 5-30 years old, from Omo M10, Chen Chen M1, and Estuquiña M6. These three populations broadly represent the sociocultural contexts of the late pre-Hispanic Andes—hierarchical social organization, dense semi-urban populations, and maize-based agriculture—two population types (highlanders and highland descents), and two chronological periods (political stability and regional conflict). Evaluation of these three samples, alongside an urban Medieval Sample, will help us better understand differences related to childhood morbidity, growth, and development in the pre-Hispanic Andes and across global populations.

Presentation format: 
Oral (live)
, Han - Washington University in St. Louis

Past studies on topics of ancient health in Northwest China tend to focus on the consequence of agricultural practices or subsistence changes; less attention has been paid to the effects of husbandry on human health. Between the 6th and 2nd millennium BCE, a period witnessing the globalization of foodways and transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age in China, animals domesticated in Southwest and Central Asia were introduced to China and integrated into the local economy in varying ways. Specifically cattle were folded into the existing pig-raising system while sheep/goats were managed within local grazing landscapes in Northwest China. Here, I review the current state of knowledge on human disease landscapes in China between the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age in the context of different husbandry practices. In doing so, I address the localized effects of animal management strategies on human health with a focus on the changing sociopolitical landscape.

Presentation format: 
Oral (pre-recorded)
, Sarah - Washington University in Saint Louis

Traditional resources related to the human body, such as foodways, medicines and body modifications, underwent profound transformations as a result of urbanization in the past. The transition to urban life resulted in changes to environmental processes (subsistence, disease transmission, pollution) and social dynamics (inequality, labor, kin and gender relations, violence). These intersecting processes left visible marks on the human body that attest to the social and biological stresses experienced by urban residents. In this paper, I review case studies of urban bioarchaeology from around the world to explore how city dwellers in the past drew on traditional resource systems to mitigate the negative impacts of urbanism. What evidence exists for the continued use of deep-time or indigenous practices by urban communities? What do we know about the emergence of new resources related to food or medicine?