Quick Tips – Common Questions: Can physical activities undertaken during life be detected on skeletal remains?

This is a Quick Tips post providing a basic answer to a commonly asked question often faced within the field of archaeology and anthropology.

Can physical activities undertaken during life be detected on skeletal remains? Yes they can.

Numerous activities, such as hunting, gathering, exercise and more obviously fighting, can inflict damage or adaptations onto to a skeletal system. Some physical activities can be easily identified by due to the damage they can produce to the skeleton, i.e. fighting, whereas the skeletons adapt to strain caused by sport or a daily activity can be harder to detect.

Stock (2006) investigated hunter-gatherer postcranial robusticity relative to patterns of mobility and climatic adaption. In this study, Stock took four collections of known hunter-gatherers skeletal remains along with the associated data of the environmental factors in the population area and the terrestrial mobility. In every analysis conducted, the effective environmental temperature was found to be negatively correlated with strength. Stock concluded that hunter-gatherers from colder climates tend to have stronger long bone diaphysis, than the groups from warmer regions. Although in contrast, the partial correlations between mobility and robusticity are positive; suggesting that activity has a consistently positive relationship with diaphyseal strength. This study indicates that even the simple ‘easy’ activity of hunting and gathering can affect diaphyseal strength of a skeleton and that the activity can be detected.

Exercise is also one of the most common factors to cause a skeleton to adapt. A recent study by Shaw (2009) was able to correctly predict an athlete’s chosen sport from quantifying the soft tissue properties and bone morphology. In Shaw’s study he focused on examining modern athletes (runners, field hockey players, swimmers, and cricketers) and a control group. Using peripheral quantitative computed tomography (pQCT), Shaw quantified the relationship between the amount of muscle and other soft tissues and the morphology of the bones along the midshaft of the arm, forearm and lower legs. This study concluded that Shaw could correctly identify an athlete’s chosen sport from examining a skeletal system and quantifying the bone mass and strength. Shaw concluded that the changes to the bones structural properties were from the strain of daily habitual training from the athlete’s young age.

These two modern studies, Stock (2006) and Shaw (2009), perfectly highlight how physical activities can be detected on skeletal remains.  But these morphological changes can be harder to detect than more brutal activities such as fighting. This is because war and fights leave tell-tale marks on the skeletons which are detectable from eye rather than quantitating data. Violence within a population whether its ritual/habitual, in times of war or domestic can be easily identified from the fractures and dents a bone receives.

A recent NAI (Non-accidental Injury) study from Day et al (2006), highlighted how skeletal remains could indicate bone trauma caused by violence. The study retrospectively observed cases of suspected NAI injuries sustained by children from X-rays obtained at an Edinburgh hospital. The bone fractures, mostly found on the skull and long bones, were suspected to be cause by domestic abuse and evidence of blunt force trauma was observed in numerous cases. Even though this is a recent study conducted on NAI instances, it does appropriately show how violence can inflict damage onto skeletal remains. An archaeological skeleton could show healed/unhealed fractures sustained via a physically demanding activity which was violent in nature, such as war or ritual fighting.


Day, F. Clegg, S. McPhillips, M. Mok, J. 2006. A retrospective case series of skeletal surveys in children with suspected non-accidental injury. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine. 13, 12. 55-59.

Shaw, C. 2009. ‘Putting flesh back onto the bones?’ Can we predict soft tissue properties from skeletal and fossil remains?. Journal of Human Evolution. 59, 5. 484-492.

Stock, J.T. 2006. Hunter-Gatherer Postcranial Robusticity Relative to Patterns of Mobility, Climatic Adaption and Selective Tissue Economy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 131, 2. 194-203.