Bioarchaeology Brings the Past to Life

Dusty knees and a big floppy sun hat: It might be the traditional image of an archaeologist, but a new breed is more likely to be found among the test tubes in a shiny lab than at the bottom of a big hole in the ground. Bioarchaeology is "the history of human disease, health, and medical treatment in the context of human evolution and adaptation as evidenced in the archaeological record," according to the Wellcome Trust, which runs a dedicated funding programme for the field. From this description you might guess that the scope of the subject is broad, with research under way in many different university departments including chemistry, biomolecular sciences, anthropology, and of course, archaeology

The Wellcome Trust set up its 10-year Bioarchaeology Programme in 1996. The scheme is one of many that the Trust runs to boost emerging fields by supporting promising individuals and providing them with funding to start their careers.

Gavin Malloch, scientific programme officer at the Trust, says, "people come from so many different backgrounds," but the aim of the scheme is "to bring more science into archaeology." In its first 6 years the scheme has provided funding for a number of Ph.D.s and postdocs, both scientists and historians.

Postdoc Susan Jim of the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol is one of them. "What is nice is the multidisciplinary aspect," she explains, "you get lots of experts from different fields and everyone gets something out of it." She is using molecular studies to characterise the diets our ancestors ate, based on the make-up of their skeletons. A single compound, cholesterol, is used as a marker allowing differentiation between groups of people with distinct diets. "Up until now bulk techniques using large compounds were used, but we look at specific compounds," Jim points out, which allows unambiguous characterisation of specific groups of people, defining the region they lived in and the foodstuffs they ate. This work is only a small step away from her background in chemistry. "I'm not an archaeologist, I'm definitely a chemist," she asserts, but it helps that "part of chemistry is applying techniques to look at a problem."

It's not all analysis of old bones though; Ian Collard, studying for a Ph.D. at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, has come to bioarchaeology from the historical direction. He describes bioarchaeology as "looking at people in an evolutionary context, with a biological bent." His research into the environmental impact on population distribution includes looking at climate and how this has affected population distribution, now and in the past. Its all about "what happened to humans" he explains, and Jim adds that the appeal of bioarchaeology is that "people on the street are interested, not just archaeologists."

Claire Holden from the biological anthropology department at University College London is researching evolutionary anthropology. She is using models developed in evolutionary genetics and applying them to linguistics to study the development of over 500 different African languages. "Linguistic evolution is similar to biological evolution," she explains, and hopes her research will provide an answer to the question "how far do evolutionary theories predict behaviour?"

These bioarchaeologists have their eyes on the future, as well as the past. Jim has plans to look for a permanent position after her postdoc, as this is the only way to carry on her research. She explains that she has "specialised so much that unless I set up my own lab, places to do what I want to do are limited." As Collard says, "practical archaeology jobs are few and far between," but there are industrial applications to his research. "The techniques we use, such as modelling, those skills are hugely applicable elsewhere," he explains.

After 6 years of Wellcome Trust funding, Collard describes his university's research group as "growing at a phenomenal rate," but the programme is moving into a new phase. Having funded an initial cohort of Ph.D.s, studentships are no longer available. Instead, from this year, as well as continuing with postdoctoral grant, University Awards are available to provide top-class researchers with 5 years of individual funding followed by a permanent post. This is all part of the Wellcome Trust's scheme "to encourage growth in the field of bioarchaeology," explains Malloch. This growth is achieved by following promising researchers from the start of their careers through to a permanent position.

Collard, one of the recipients of the final tranche of studentships, describes himself as being in "a very privileged position," and explains that grant recipients have close contact with the Wellcome Trust, with regular visits and presentations. Malloch explains that it is expected that "people who've become established will enter normal competition for grants." However, there are suggestions that despite the growth of the field, those looking for funding beyond 2005 will find it difficult. Jim suggests, "maybe the field isn't quite healthy enough" to compete directly with other disciplines, and Collard believes that "it isn't going to be easy." Possible grant providers include the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, as well as Wellcome itself. Holden's advice is to "be practical about it, think of a soluble problem." And Jim sounds an optimistic note: "If you are passionate about the work you do, you will find funding, but it's easier to have a great funding body like Wellcome."

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