Ask a Researcher: What do Human Remains Tell Us?

Archaeological human remains are the only source letting us study the human as a biological object, and how the environment has affected human populations in the past, says Raili Allmäe, researcher at the Tallinn University Archaeological Research Collection.


While archaeological objects tell us how rich the people were and how the technology and society advanced as a whole, the archaeological human remains carry various bits of information on the formation of human populations, and the relationship between the man and their environment.

DNA recovered from the human skeleton can reveal the person’s origins, looks, the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. The reasons behind their illnesses, such as the plague or tuberculosis, also leave traces in their bones, letting us study the epidemics of the past, and – more importantly – the evolution of pathogens.

The human skeleton also tells us how well or badly the people survived in their environment; where they grew up, what were their living conditions, their food, health and general well-being.

The most intimate contact the person has with their natural environment is through the food chain. Food and drinking water plant the most chemical elements and their isotopes to the bones, which tell us about their geographical origins, variety of the food they eat, and access to various resources.
For example, unwelcome climate and weather, and the accompanying epidemics and droughts, as well as societal events, such as military conflicts, often result in negative changes in the quality of life, e.g. shortages of food or even famine, which in turn increase our susceptibility to infectious diseases.

Using stress markers, disease traits and growth breaks in bones and teeth allows archaeo-antrhropologists to assess the effect of such events to people.

A very good marker to show the effect of the environment on people is their height, i.e. the average height of the human population and its changes throughout different times.

We know our height is genetically determined, but reaching that number depends on many variables in our environment during our growth, which can leave us shorter than we were meant to be.

Today we know that in Estonia, as in the whole of Europe, people were shorter during the 14.-18. Centuries, or the Small Ice Age, as the annual average temperature was 1-2 degrees lower than the periods before and after that.