Skeletal evidence of the treatment of the elderly in the Archaic and Mississippian periods in the southeastern United States
One of the primary goals in the discipline of anthropology is to explain the changes that accompany major transitions in human life. One very important transition that has occurred worldwide was the transition from a foraging existence where humans depended solely on wild food resources to an agricultural way of life with humans growing and manipulating certain staple crops. Changes that accompanied the shift to agriculture in the region of what is now the state of Alabama include increased sedentarism, increased social stratification, and poorer health and nutrition. As human groups adopted agriculture people also had to work harder to produce the food they needed to survive. This study looks to see if these changes affected the elderly in prehistoric Alabama in the same ways it affected the rest of the population. Two sites were chosen for this study. The Perry site in northwestern Alabama represents the pre-agricultural Archaic period and Moundville in west central Alabama represents the agricultural Mississippian period. Previous studies in Alabama have found a general increase in workload and trauma with the introduction of agriculture by looking at changes in osteoarthritis, bone strength and density, fractures, and dislocations, so it was expected that similar trends would be found in the oldest segment of these populations. Contrary to the results of previous studies, this study found that evidence of activity actually decreased among the elderly from the Archaic period to the Mississippian period in Alabama. This could be due to the small sample size available for this study, but if these results are in fact accurate, they reflect the excellent treatment of the elderly as reported in ethnohistoric accounts of the Southeast.