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Drs. Stock and Pinhasi's (eds) book "Human Bioarchaeology of the Transition to Agriculture" with contributions by BHAP team members Drs. Lieverse, Schulting, and Temple, receives stellar review in American Journal of Physical Anthropology

October 30, 2012

Congratulations to BHAP team members Drs. Jay Stock, Angel Lieverse, Rick Schulting, and Daniel Temple! Dr. Stock and Dr. Pinhasi's (eds) book Human Bioarchaeology of the Transition to Agriculture recently received a stellar review in the recent American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Volume 149, Issue 3, pages 483-484, November 2012.

Review below:
Human Bioarchaeology of the Transition to Agriculture. Edited by Ron Pinhasi and Jay T. Stock. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell 2011. 484 pp. ISBN 978-0-470-74370-8 $159.95. (Hardcover).

Brigitte Holt*, * Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA.

In the three decades that have passed since the publication of Cohen and Armelagos' 1984 seminal volume Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture, the view that the transition to agriculture signaled a general decline in health has become entrenched in anthropology. The various authors in that volume and research in subsequent years have generally emphasized that the intertwined shifts to sedentism and predominantly carbohydrate-based diets of agriculturalists resulted in a universal decline in health, including a rise in infectious diseases and dental caries, reduced stature, and lower life expectancy, prompting Jared Diamond to consider agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race." But, as Pinhasi and Stock point out in their excellent edited volume Human Bioarchaeology of the Transition to Agriculture, one challenge lies with reconciling this "paleopathological paradigm" with the great demographic success of the foraging-farming transition.

Pinhasi and Stock aim to present current bioarcheological and multidisciplinary approaches to understand the transition to agriculture (mobility, behavior, diet, growth, population dynamics, and genetics). The book comprises numerous excellent case studies incorporating traditional osteometric methods with newer approaches such as stable isotopes, biomechanics, and paleogenetics, casting a much broader net than Cohen and Armelagos' volume, which focused explicitly on paleopathological indicators of health. The 484-page book includes 19 chapters divided fairly evenly into four sections. The five chapters in Section A, loosely entitled "Subsistence Transitions", focus primarily on isotopic evidence of dietary change dovetailed with other bioarcheological indicators. Section B focuses on variability in bone growth and body proportions, while the four chapters in Section C employ biomechanical approaches to infer changes in habitual activity. The final, and more heterogeneous, Section D covers paleogenetic evidence of population movement and adaptation, demographic trends, and craniodental changes.

In their introduction, the editors underscore the need for studies that move beyond the hunter-gatherer-farmer dichotomy and examine the impact of agriculture across time and space and the importance of local human-environment interactions. A number of chapters use a wide array of bioarcheological approaches (e.g., stable isotopes, body size, paleopathology, and biomechanics) to do just that, painting not one, but multiple, rich and textured pictures of this very significant "social and biological transition in human history" (p. 348). Several chapters, for instance, reveal fine-grained details about gender-based differences associated with the transition. Lillie and Budd, for example, carefully pull together paleopathology data with direct evidence of diet from stable isotope to show that the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Eastern Europe resulted in unequal gender access to protein in some areas, while Ruff and Larsen's use of biomechanics reveals that in US prehistoric groups, local ecological setting impacted female bone robusticity change differently, with females in inland groups increasing in robusticity while coastal females decreased, presumably reflecting heavier workloads for the former. Biomechanics are also used to show that, contrary to general assumption, the transition to farming did not necessarily lead to reduced mobility, as demonstrated by Marchi et al. for agropastoralist groups in Northwest Italy. A number of chapters (Auerbach, Temple) use body size and bone growth data to demonstrate positive health impacts associated with increased reliance on domesticated food sources in some areas.

The chapters in Section D by Burger and Thomas and Linderholm cover recent important applications of genetics to the issues of Neolithic farmer's expansion in Europe and gene-culture coevolution, providing excellent illustrations of the book's explicit focus on biocultural and current approaches. Both chapters attest to the centrality of ancient DNA in clarifying genetic relationships between Mesolithic foragers and Neolithic farmers. Both also include discussions of the relationship between domestication of cattle and selection for the lactase persistence allele in Central European populations, a vivid illustration of gene-culture coevolution.

Although I enjoyed all the chapters, the one by Lieverse et al. on activity and diet change in the Siberian Cis-Baikal region spoke to me in particular because it illustrates the book's goals so clearly. The authors weave musculostress markers, biomechanics, isotopes, ecological, and archeological data to paint exquisitely detailed and vivid scenes of human groups adapting to a rich but challenging and changing boreal environment, showing for instance that the correlation between higher male upper limb strength in later groups and isotopic evidence of deep water fish exploitation suggests increased use of efficient watercraft on open waters.

The tables included in most chapters present useful data, in particular Schulting's excellent Table 2.1 which provides an exhaustive catalog of human δ13C and δ14C values for numerous European Mesolithic and Neolithic sites, and Auberbach's Table 9.2, listing body size and proportion statistics for numerous North American samples that will be most useful for comparative studies. Most of the chapters include clear figures illustrating results. In addition, six color plates, in particular Plates 15.1 and 15.2, respectively provide effective depictions of Neolithic expansion throughout Europe and the spread of the lactase persistence allele from its center of origin in Central Europe.

One minor criticism might be that, while geographic coverage includes case studies from Europe, the Levant, Japan, and North and South America, the volume is more Euro-centered than the Cohen and Armelagos volume. Only three of the 19 chapters focus on New World case studies (one in Argentina and two in the US). However, this does not detract from the quality of this excellent book. Anyone interested in the transition to sedentism and domestication will find the book a precious reference. The volume would also make an excellent text for upper level courses on bioarcheology, in particular to illustrate the power of the biocultural approach. The human skeleton is sometimes referred to as a "biological archive," and the multidisciplinary approaches employed in many of the chapters demonstrate this concept beautifully, and reinforce the central role human skeletal remains play in bioarcheology.

Link to Review: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.22148/full

Pdf of Review.

Link to content of Human Bioarchaeology of the Transition to Agriculture here.

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