Children in Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology

  • Siân Ellen HalcrowEmail author
  • Stacey M. Ward
Living reference work entry


The bioarchaeology of childhood has gained traction in the past two decades, with a proliferation of research papers and new methods for investigating this subset of past populations (Halcrow and Tayles 2008; Lewis 2007; Mays et al. 2017). It is now accepted that children are so-called “canaries in the coal mine” for population stress as a whole because their developing immune system and the energy requirements of normal growth make them more susceptible to the effects of stress (Lewis 2007). It is well established that children are sensitive barometers of population fertility, mortality, stress, and infectious disease, and their study also provides insights into identity and childcare practices in archaeological populations (Larsen 2015). Similarly, research on children in the forensic context is crucial given that infants and children are often the victims of homicide and genocide (Lewis 2007). For example, in 2012, children younger than the age of 20 comprised 95,000 or one-fifth of all homicides worldwide (UNICEF 2014). This entry introduces the bioarchaeological and forensic anthropological study of children and discusses key theoretical and methodological approaches and their limitations.


Bioarchaeology refers to the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites. This term was coined in the 1970s to refer to human skeletal analyses investigating the lifeways of past peoples, including diet, disease, migration, and habitual activities (Buikstra 1977). Child bioarchaeology therefore refers to the investigation of this age group from the archaeological context. The biological age categories that are used in bioarchaeology align somewhat with the medical literature. However, their use varies and Lewis (2007) and Halcrow and Tayles (2008) provide discussions of the different terminology used within bioarchaeology. Infants and children are often divided into the categories of fetus (younger than 37 weeks of gestation), infants (from the newborn period of older than 37 weeks to less than 1 year of age), and children (from about 1–17 years of age). Forensic anthropology refers to the investigation of human skeletal biology within the legal and/or criminal context. In the forensic literature, biological age at death for estimating chronological age is the primary identifier of children. Because of this, a major focus in childhood forensic research is the accurate estimation of age of infants and children using dental and skeletal methods (Lewis and Rutty 2003).

Historical Background

Early bioarchaeological research was focused on the description and typological classification of physical characteristics of humans based on adult skeletal (mainly cranial) remains. Although the concept of developmental plasticity and child growth was introduced in anthropology in the early twentieth century by Franz Boas, it was not until after the mid-twentieth century that infants and children were investigated in bioarchaeology, and until the 2000s that its study became more commonplace. Child forensic anthropology also has a relatively short historical background with the first forensic case studies occurring near the middle of the twentieth century (Lewis and Rutty 2003).

Key Issues/Current Debates

Bioarchaeological Theory: Stress, Developmental Origins and the Social Life Course

Bioarchaeologists traditionally employ a biocultural approach, where skeletal remains are interpreted within the context of the interplay between biology and culture (Larsen 2015). Physiological stress from an external (environmental) stressor is the central basis of this biocultural model (Goodman et al. 1984). Recently there is a growing interest in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) hypothesis in bioarchaeology, where it is recognized that maternal and early life stress has pressing implications for adult life and the health experience of their own offspring (Gowland 2015). Other approaches pertinent to child bioarchaeology are social life course theory and plasticity theory. The life course approach interprets aspects of human growth and health in the context of the different biological processes and social aspects that vary across the life course (Agarwal 2016). Plasticity theory views variability in development as a response to stress and investigates adaptive capacity across the life course. There is an increasing amount of literature drawing on social theory, focused on investigating the social identity of children, and the study of infant and child death and burial from archaeological contexts (e.g., Murphy and Le Roy 2017). Bioarchaeologists working with infants and children acknowledge that they are dealing with the nonsurvivors, and therefore, they may not be representative of the health experiences of survivors of the populations.

Methodological Approaches

The fields of bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology are similarly interested in building biological profiles of individuals, including age and any other identifying features such as disease and evidence for trauma. As such, many of the methods employed for this purpose are similar between these fields. There are several central methods for investigating children in the archaeological and forensic anthropological contexts, and we outline these below.

Preservation and Recovery

Although it is often assumed that there are issues with preservation of infants and children in the archaeological context, there are many examples of excellent preservation of children from diverse environmental contexts (Lewis 2007, p. 20). However, there is the potential for small developing bones from infants and children to be missed or damaged during excavation.

Age at Death Estimation

Age at death estimation is a first step in bioarchaeological analyses and forensic anthropology identification. Human age has social, biological, and chronological facets. The estimation of age at death in bioarchaeology relies primarily on the assessment of biological age using standards for dental and skeletal development. Accepted age at death methods include the use of long bone lengths (Cunningham et al. 2016), dental development and eruption (Ubelaker 1989), and the appearance and fusion of secondary ossification centers (Lewis 2007). As mortality is the ultimate expression of physiological stress, age at death profiles provide insight into population adaptation to the biocultural environment (Lewis 2007). Social age may be assessed with archaeological analyses of grave goods, mortuary practices and historical documents. These data may be informative of the place and role of children in society, cultural beliefs around care, and may also provide insight into social organization. A key issue surrounding age at death estimation is individual and population level variation in biological development. Methodological development in forensic anthropology is focused on increasing the efficiency and reliability of existing aging techniques in forensics (Schaefer et al. 2017).

Mortality and Demography

Although the death of an older adult may be expected, the death of an infant or child is generally the outcome of poor health or an accident. Just as the World Health Organisation uses mortality rates to gage overall population stress and disease, bioarchaeologists also use mortality rates as an indicator of population adaptation. The study of demography focuses on past population composition (e.g., age and sex), to infer aspects of population dynamics such as population growth and decline and fertility rates. Counterintuitively, fertility can be assessed by looking at the amount of infant and child death in a cemetery sample, as the more babies that are born the more are expected to be represented in the cemetery sample. However, unfortunately infants and young child are often excluded from many fertility statistics on the assumption that they will be under-represented in archaeological samples (Halcrow et al. 2017).

Nonspecific Indicators of Stress

As children are growing there is an opportunity to assess their experience of stress through an assessment of physiological disruptions in growth. Because the etiology of these indicators of stress is often not known in the archaeological context, these are termed “nonspecific.” Common types of nonspecific indicators of stress include developmental defects of the dentition (Hillson 1996). The rate of dental development and formation is less affected by environmental stressors than bone growth. Therefore, comparing the lag in long bone growth with dental development can give insight into the experience of stress (Humphrey 2000). Newer methods for assessing infant and childhood growth include the measurement of vertebral dimensions (Newman and Gowland 2015). There has also been a focus in research on the timing of adolescence as a measure of stress (e.g., Lewis et al. 2016). We can also look at evidence for bony responses to inflammation (subperiosteal new bone formation) or nonspecific bone infection (osteomyelitis) (Lewis 2018). Although the assessment of physiological disruption is not always useful in some forensic contexts, the application of these types of techniques may prove useful in assessing forensic cases involving child abuse and neglect, although these methods are not definitive (Ross and Abel 2011).

Specific Infectious Disease and Trauma

There are many pathological conditions that can be found in infant and child remains (Lewis 2018). Some diseases may leave diagnostic indicators on the skeleton, and these may be studied in conjunction with detailed age, sex, and contextual information to identify specific diseases and provide insight into aspects of the environment such as subsistence and diet, level of sedentism, and social identity (Lewis 2007, 2018). Examples of specific diseases investigated in children include smallpox, tuberculosis, and treponemal disease (Lewis 2018).

Increasingly, trauma analyses are being incorporated into childhood bioarchaeological studies. When investigated within a life course theory framework, trauma analysis can reveal information on violence towards children, caregiving, childhood occupation, and personhood in childhood (Lewis 2007, 2014, 2018).

A key issue in the paleopathological and forensic anthropology analyses of children is the difficultly differentiating pathological and normal bone growth, and the removal of skeletal evidence of trauma and disease through the rapid remodeling of bone (Lewis 2014). Care must be taken in child trauma analyses, as the high cartilage content and other properties of infant and child cortical bone influence the fracture types observed, their distribution in the skeleton, and the duration of healing.

Weaning and Diet

Weaning is the process of introducing solid foods into an infant’s diet and moving away from an exclusively breastfed diet. The start of this process is significant as it increases the risks of mortality and morbidity in infants, as they are exposed to more pathogens through food and water and the possibility of nutrient-poor weaning foods (Katzenberg et al. 1996). Estimating the age of onset of weaning provides information on cultural beliefs about infant and childhood diet, subsistence and availability of suitable supplementary foods, and duration of breastfeeding can have a bearing on fertility. The pattern of weaning and diet may be assessed through analyses of the skeleton, including chemical signatures (isotopes) in teeth and bone (and sometimes in hair if preserved), and macroscopic and microscopic investigation of developmental dental defects and dental wear (Halcrow et al. 2018). Recent developments in chemical studies of infant human remains are also allowing identification of physiological stress events during childhood (Beaumont and Montgomery 2016).

Forensic Anthropology Identification of Infants and Children

As mentioned, children are subject to high rates of homicide and violence and are often found in skeletonized states due to their rapid decomposition (Lewis and Rutty 2003; Lewis 2007). Skeletal indicators of sex and ancestry are often used in conjunction with age estimates and trauma and pathology analyses to build profiles for their identification. Although it is relatively easy to estimate a biological age of infants and children compared with adults in the forensic context, the methods for identification of infants and children including the estimation of ancestry and sex are problematic (Lewis and Rutty 2003).

Morphologically based methods for sex estimation of infants and children are problematic as there is little sexual dimorphism present prior to puberty (Lewis and Rutty 2003; Lewis 2007). Ancestry is identified through analysis of metric and nonmetric dental traits in deciduous and permanent teeth, body proportions, and skeletal nonmetric traits. In addition, isotopic analysis of tooth and bone may be useful for revealing the geographic origin of the deceased. Traumatic injuries may be used in forensic contexts to identify cause of death or factors relating to death, and patterns of trauma on the skeleton can be used for personal identification (Lewis 2007). Ancient DNA methods are increasing in reliability and applicability and are decreasing in cost. These techniques may be useful for investigating sex, ancestry, and identifying familial relationships.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anatomy, School of Biomedical SciencesUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Soren Blau
    • 1
  • Luis Fondebrider
    • 2
  • Douglas H. Ubelaker
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Forensic MedicineVictorian Institute of Forensic Medicine / Monash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF)Buenos AiresArgentina
  3. 3.National Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA