Estimation of age-at-death involves observing morphological features in the skeletal remains, comparing the information with changes recorded for recent populations of known age, and then estimating any sources of variability likely to exist between the prehistoric and the recent population furnishing the documented data. This third step is seldom recognized or discussed in osteological studies, but it represents a significant element. – Ubelaker, D. 1989.
There are numerous markers on a human skeleton which can provide archaeologists and anthropologists with an estimate age of the deceased. The areas of the skeletal remains that are studied are:
- Cranial suture closure.
- Epiphyseal closures.
- Ilium auricular surface.
- Long bone length.
- Pubic symphysis.
- Sternal rib end.
- Radiographical analysis.
- Bone microstructure.
If the skeletal marker listed above is a link, it means that I have already covered it in an individual blog post and can be found by following the link.
We can age skeletal remains to a rough estimate, as over a lifetime a human skeleton undergoes sequential chronological changes. Teeth appear and bone epiphyseal form and fuse during childhood and adolescence, with some bone fusing, metamorphose and degeneration carrying on after the age of twenty. Buikstra and Ubelaker, 1994, developed seven age categories that human osteological remains are separated into. The seven age classes are; fetus (before birth), infant (0-3 years), child (3-12 years), adolescent (12-20 years), young adult (20-35 years), middle adult (35-50 years), and old adult (50+ years).
When it comes to ageing skeletal remains, there are numerous problems. This is because individuals of the same chronological age can show difference degrees of development. Therefore, this causes archaeologists and anthropologists to obtain an accurate age estimate, which may not be precise.
It should be noted that it is a lot easier to deduce a juvenile/sub-adult’s age, as the ends of the limb bones form and fuse at known ages and the ages of which tooth formation and eruption occur are very well documented, although somewhat variable. After maturity there is little continuing skeletal change to observe, this causes adult ageing to become more difficult.
Buikstra, J.E., Ubelaker, D.H. 1994. Standards for Data Collection From Human Skeletal Remains. Fayetteville, Arkansas: Arkansas Archaeological Survey Report Number 44.
Ubelaker, D.H. 1989. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Taraxacum.
White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 360-385.
This is the first of a Quick Tips series on ageing skeletal remains, the next in this series will focus on the epiphyseal closure method of ageing sub-adults. To read more Quick Tips in the mean time, click here!
To learn about basic fracture types and their characteristics/origins click here!