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Bioarchaeological Studies of Life in the Age of Agriculture: A View from the Southeast

Bioarchaeological Studies of Life in the Age of Agriculture:  A View from the So
Patricia M. Lambert
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
Publication Date: 

paper, 280 p., $29.95

We are what we eat. Our skeletons can tell the history not only of our diets and their inadequacies but also of our medical histories and traumas. Prof. George R. Milner of Pennsylvania State University, a leader in the demanding discipline of bioarcheology, has commented, "These authoritative, provocative, and wide-ranging studies of human skeletons provide perspectives on life and death in the prehistoric Southeast that are impossible to obtain through other kinds of archaeological investigations."

Peripheral though this book may seem by its title to students of plants and plant science, a principal theme of the papers is the effect, not always beneficial, of the shift in human nutrition sources from those of the hunter-gatherer to the domesticated crops of agriculture. A primary detriment for the people whose remains were studied was the rise of dental caries associated with increased reliance on maize in American agriculture. The findings of these scientists provide many cautionary tales that validate today's injunctions for proper tooth care. There are other themes, such as the disease patterns associated with the growth of village life, whether under European influence or not, which produced, inter alia, reliance on easily polluted water sources.

If mankind cannot learn from the past, an opportunity that will be denied if archaeology is prevented by law and politics from studying these telling records of our history, the planet and its population will be the worse for it. One example of the benefits of learning from unhealthy trends in nutrition is the program of Native Seeds/SEARCH of Tucson to curb diabetes among Southwestern Indians. It weans them from poor diets of European origin and restores healthy traditional foods — a process that often meant rescuing native food plants from extinction.

It would be a tragedy for humanity if the lessons of this important body of science were ignored. This book is not an easy read, but it is rewarding to the serious inquirer, who will find a challenging body of knowledge here, and more than a mere footnote to the notion that agriculture and civilization provide all the answers to our common weal.

— John Swenson, Plant Collector and Master Gardener at the Chicago Botanic Garden.