For much of the last five or so million years of our evolution, humans have migrated, colonizing territory already occupied by other humans. Not until the later Holocene do we have the depth and breadth of the archaeological and historical record, providing the essential context for documenting and interpreting the remarkable picture of outcomes of contact and colonization. Melissa S. Murphy and Haagen D. Klaus’s book makes clear that an essential record for developing a broader picture of the processes, patterns, and outcomes of contact and colonization is provided by the study of human remains.
Bioarchaeology, although originating in descriptive approaches to the study of bones and teeth, views human remains as representing once-living people as if they were alive today. Specifically, it views the remains of past people in relation to lifeway reconstruction, population and demographic history, and the influence of political, economic, and social forces of the earlier societies they represent. This approach to the study of ancient remains is well illustrated in the 14 chapters presented in this book. Starting with the excellent overview of the state-of-the-art of the bioarchaeology of colonization and contact, the reader is provided with disciplinary context for the case studies to follow. Murphy and Klaus have a singular purpose in delving “deeper into the study of contact and colonialism through new and synthetic bioarchaeological research of colonial encounters, culture contact, and colonialism from diverse areas of the world.” In my view, the book succeeds by addressing leading questions of interest to the growing community of scholars interested in the dynamics—cultural, social, and biological—and outcomes when one society collides with another: Why did contact and colonialism result in such different outcomes around the world? How were the colonizers affected by the encounters? How did behaviors and identities of both colonizers and colonized change?
These questions and the broad focus of the book offer new research avenues, new geographic foci, and fresh insights into contact and colonialism. (p.xvi) Indeed, the reader will be impressed with just how far the field has come since the early 1980s, and especially since Henry Dobyns’s role in defining the field as largely demographic, focusing on European-introduced epidemic diseases, widespread death, rapid population decline, and ultimately the disappearance of native peoples. Simply put, the study of contact and colonization is no longer limited to the catastrophic “guns, germs, and steel” narrative. Rather, as Christopher Stojanowski succinctly states in his concluding chapter, the field has expanded, providing a new “database of the colonial experience” and showing the local, regional, and global footprint of contact and colonialism. The contributors to the book emphasize that although of course the field needs to continue its focus and strength on biology viewed in historical context, it must also broaden its scope by building bridges that capture the human experience involving the linkages between biology, culture, and society (e.g., processes involving social transformation and the role of structural violence).
The central 12 chapters of the book present new findings on regions and populations not previously published (e.g., the Samuel George Morton African collection; South Africa) or address new topics in regions with considerable bioarchaeological depth (e.g., Spanish Florida, Nubia, Belize). The picture of contact and colonization is one of exploiter and exploited, but the line between the two is blurred in some key respects. Earlier research emphasized complete advantage to the exploiter and complete disadvantage to the exploited. In Spanish Florida, for example, the late prehistoric Mississippian social and political hierarchies provided the built-in economic framework by which the elite channeled surplus food (especially maize) and labor to the Spanish authorities. In this arrangement, both natives and Spaniards benefited—the hereditary native elite maintained their status and access to wealth, and the Spanish presence was supported by having the regional resources in order to sustain a presence in the region (Thomas 2013). It is true, however, that while this system was economically beneficial to both native elites and Spanish authorities, the human skeletal record representing the former shows long-term health declines and labor exploitation (e.g., various essays in Larsen 2001), the development of new social relationships within communities (Stojanowski 2013), and variable outcomes from community to community (Hutchinson 2006).
The pages that follow build on what has been previously learned via past bioarchaeological research, reemphasizing the complexities of the contact and colonialism experience. Certainly, there are common features when viewed globally, but the details at the local and regional levels allow us to (p.xvii) build the larger temporal and spatial perspective that anthropological science provides. This book joins the rich and expanding bioarchaeological literature on the study of what conditions were like in the dynamic circumstances for multiple settings and time periods around the world.
Clark Spencer Larsen