Evaluation of the methodology for addressing commingled human remains from the Lewis Jones Cave Ossuary (1Sc42) in St. Clair, Alabama

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The commingling of human remains continues to be a problem encountered by bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Commingling is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, taphonomic processes and human activity have created scenarios of merged burials and interments throughout human history. Recent investigations into incidences of mass killings, accidents with multiple fatalities, and disturbed burial grounds within the past half century have encouraged researchers in the field of physical anthropology to develop new and better ways to gain information about the commingled human remains. With emerging developments in the methods used for addressing these unfortunate situations involving intermixed skeletal material, this research project sought to explore the available methods and evaluate their appropriateness when applied to a curated collection of commingled human remains. To evaluate certain established methods, this project describes the application of four separate approaches to the Lewis Jones Cave Ossuary Collection (1Sc42). This collection of prehistoric Native American remains was found in northeastern Alabama, and the archaeological site from which the remains were recovered is believed to be one of the few sites demonstrating the Copena Mortuary Complex. The four methods applied to the Lewis Jones Cave Ossuary Collection include a basic Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) calculation, comparison by osteometrics, a sorting of descriptive variables, and a correlation between a mapped excavation unit and the corresponding curated skeletal remains. Results from this evaluation indicate that while each method has strengths and weaknesses when applied alone, it is only with an amalgamation of the different methods that a researcher studying commingled human remains is able to sort and separate intermixed skeletal material. The findings from this research project aid in the study of curated collections of commingled human remains and expand available information pertaining to the prehistoric Native Americans interred within the Lewis Jones Cave Ossuary. Furthermore, evaluation of these methodological approaches serves to assist in future investigations into incidences of genocide, man-made disasters, and other situations involving commingled human remains.

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Physical anthropology