Stressed Out: Debunking the stress myth in the study of archaeological human remains
19th – 20th May 2017, UCL Institute of Archaeology (London)
The word ‘stress’ is a now quite common part of modern vernacular, but the true or correct meaning of the concept can be difficult to tease out. It is used to indicate anything from the physiological response of the body to an event, to a psychological one (emotional distress), but, clinically (in the medical community) the meaning is quite specific and refers to the Selyean Stress Concept – colloquially known as the flight or fight response. Here, the body responds in a very specific way to ‘threatening’ external agents, via neuroendocrine responses, which, while beneficial in the short term, if experienced over a long period of time can cause enlargement of the adrenal glands and lymph nodes, as well as gastric ulcers (amongst other problems).
The study of archaeological human remains has co-opted this notion of ‘stress’, but it has remained poorly defined, is often mis-used, and, as noted by Hillson (2014, 204) ‘the word has ceased to have any clear meaning in bioarchaeology’. The purpose of this conference is to re-consider the use of this term in human remains research and to start a dialogue regarding how to better define what we mean when we say ‘stress’ in archaeology. To this aim, the conference has a two-fold agenda.
The conference scope and main topics: Two main topics will be covered:
- Dental anthropology perspective – ‘stress’ indicators in teeth
- Non-specific indicators of disease in palaeopathology
Dental anthropology perspective. Structure and function of teeth have been widely used in inquiry of either ancient or modern human population to address numerous research questions. Given the complexity of tooth formation processes, study of developmental defects of teeth can provide general snapshot of ‘life-history’ in a population or an individual observed. This conference topic will be focused on study of (micro)structures of teeth with special emphasis on specific life-history events reconstruction (e.g. pregnancies, skeletal trauma, renal disorders) and the interpretation of non-specific indicators (enamel hypoplasia) in response to variety of external influences. To cover a wide scope of investigation, researchers in several disciplines (e.g. physical anthropology, dentistry, forensic science) would be welcome to present their research on this topic.
Palaeopathological problems: The examination of disease (and disease-load) in past populations is of significant importance, as it can provide answers to large scale questions about human activity and behaviour. One way in which palaeopathologists in the past have tried to explore this is by looking at so-called ‘indicators of stress’ – especially in the remains of children; these indicators could include nutritional deficiencies, ‘non-specific infection’, and retarded bone development. This umbrella usage of ‘stress’ means that no effort has been made to unpick the true causative agents for these observed bony changes, creating, quite frankly, a lazy discipline. This second thread of the conference will confront this problem, focusing on diagnostic issues within the sub-field of palaeopathology.