An osteobiography of an African diasporic skeletal sample: Integrating skeletal and historical information

Emily S Renschler, University of Pennsylvania


Human skeletal and dental material, as sensitive recorders of environmental conditions during life, can provide a rich storehouse of individual historical events (Garn, 1976; Larsen, 1997). This characteristic is the basis of an "osteobiography" of a sample of crania (N=51) from individuals who died shortly after arrival in Havana from Africa during the era of the Cuban slave trade. The crania are now a part of the Samuel G. Morton Collection housed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. As part of an osteobiographical approach to the individual crania, skeletal information is synthesized with historical information. To achieve this synthesis, this dissertation analyzes skeletal data from the sample in light of several research questions posed by the historical record of the Cuban slave trade. Issues such as demography, ancestry, and life conditions of the individuals represented are illuminated by analysis of data on age, sex, cranial measurements, ritual dental modification, and paleopathology. The results of this examination are generally consistent with historical information. First, skeletal age data indicate that the majority of the individuals in the sample were adolescents and "prime-age" adults. This finding correlates well with the historical record. Second, as to the ancestry of the individuals represented, craniometric data supports an African origin as well as a high degree of individual heterogeneity within the sample. This high level of morphometric variation agrees with the contemporary narrative that African-born enslaved Cubans were drawn from diverse cultures and geographic areas. Evidence for ritual dental modification in a number of crania of the individuals in the sample further supports their African origin. Finally, paleopathological analysis of the sample suggests that these African born individuals faced less physiological stress than comparable individuals born into slavery in the New World. The fusion of an osteobiographical approach with historical research offers a deeper and more textured view of the life stories of the people in the sample than is achievable by either approach, taken alone.

Subject Area

Physical anthropology|Black history|Human remains|Forensic osteology

Recommended Citation

Renschler, Emily S, "An osteobiography of an African diasporic skeletal sample: Integrating skeletal and historical information" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3260972.