The Florida Museum’s Bill Keegan, curator of Caribbean Archaeology, co-authored a paper asking bioarchaeologists to reevaluate traditional assumptions about kinship when analyzing burial sites.

All humans have strong attachments to their roots. This is as true today – witness the interest in personal genetic “ancestry” testing – as it was in the past. Understanding people by studying their physical remains is the purview of bioarchaeology. Bioarchaeologists study human remains from archaeological sites in order to distinguish physical characteristics that can be used to trace people’s origins and identify group and inter-group relationships. These measurements, called biometrics, provide a replicable method for characterizing populations.

Biometrics and genetic studies have been used to identify the kinship relations between individuals buried in the same cemetery. Researchers use these measurements to draw conclusions about how people moved from place to place and answer questions concerning who is buried where. All interpretations are based on assumptions, and some assumptions are based on an incomplete understanding of how kinship systems operate.

diagram of related individuals
Diagram of a biologically related collection of individuals.

In “The Bioarchaeology of Kinship,” Bradley Ensor, Joel Irish and I counter these misunderstandings by presenting a detailed review of the ways in which kinship influences who you can marry, where you live and where you are buried. For example, an individual is born in the village of a parent, moves to a different village at marriage to live with their spouse’s family, and finally is buried in the cemetery belonging to their clan. Kinship is really a social phenomenon, not a biological one, as generally assumed.

Recognizing the complex social norms that influence people’s lives is essential for the accurate interpretation of individuals’ relationships based on their final resting place. The same is true even for the distribution of plants and animals. Culture, as well as nature, influences why genetic and physical traits appear where they do. Often overlooked are the countless, invisible human choices that have formed and shaped communities of plants, animals and people.

Read the full paper online.

Authors: , and 


Bioarchaeology provides sophisticated techniques for estimating intra- and intercemetery biological relationships (i.e., biodistances), which can significantly expand anthropological research on kinship, explaining multiple dimensions of social life and identity in prehistory. However, some assumptions guiding the interpretation of results may need reconsideration. Although it is often assumed that descent groups should be homogeneous, social organizational and marriage practices actually produce heterogeneity within descent groups. Interpretations of postmarital residence typically assume that spouses are buried together in the same cemetery, whereas cross-cultural ethnographic patterns suggest that postmortem location does not universally follow residence. Nevertheless, cross-cultural data do indicate that postmortem location is generally predictable by type of descent group and whether membership with natal groups is maintained or transferred upon marriage. These issues are discussed, leading to alternative models on intra- and intercemetery biodistance expectations for matrilineal descent groups, for patrilineal descent groups with and without wives’ membership transfers, and for a range of smaller groups under bilateral descent. The influence of common marriage alliance systems on intra- and intergroup phenotypic heterogeneity versus homogeneity are also described. The proposed biodistance expectations for interpreting different kinship and marriage strategies may better position bioarchaeologists to engage other subfields and make substantial contributions to kinship research.

“The Bioarchaeology of Kinship: Proposed Revisions to Assumptions Guiding Interpretation,” Current Anthropology 58, no. 6 (December 2017): 739-761.

Learn more about Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum.

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