What is the osteological paradox and how does it influence the reputability of bioarchaeological studies?

The osteological paradox is a concept first addressed in a journal article by JW Wood and colleagues in 1992. It is concerned with the heterogeneity in disease risk, selective mortality, and demographic nonstationarity. We cannot discern the underlying vulnerabilities of a skeletal population, especially pertaining to intermingling of sub-populations, whether it may be undistinguishable due time depth or minor environmental differences. This is what is called hidden heterogeneity in risks. Selective mortality is basically the fact that the samples being studied are only of the dead people of specific ages. We, for instance, cannot study a living 15-year-old from a population 2,000 years ago, but only the 15 year olds who died when they were 15. Regarding age-at-death, nonstationarity populations are not affected by mortality rate changes and are increasingly affected by birth rate/fertility changes and more revealing of them. Basically, the main concern of the osteological paradox as it applies to the field of bioarchaeology and more specifically paleopathology, is that those who exhibit pathological lesions on the skeleton are a biased sample. For a disease to progress to the point of being present on bone, they would have had to survive with such a disease for some considerable amount of time, leaving the rest of the population with seemingly normal healthy looking skeletal remains to potentially be individuals who died from the disease at the onset of ‘contamination’ or early enough where it would not make itself present on bone. This concept is very influential on this field because the focus of paleopathological studies have switched from being individual based to population based. We are concerned with the population in bioarchaeology, and pathological analysis is a major asset of our research.

The original journal article by Wood et al (1992) was influential to the field of bioarchaeology since it’s publication. Most in the field understood the problems at hand, and so this publication resulted in a period of self-analysis and improvement of methods within bioarchaeology. As a result, this truly strengthened the subdiscipline. At the time of the publication, the reputability of bioarchaeological studies pertaining to paleopathology was not what it is today. Keep in mind that bioarchaeology is a fairly recent subfield of anthropology. Since publication, new methods have come about in bioarchaeology such as stable isotope analysis, which offers scientific data on diet, weaning, and migration that are beneficial for overcoming this paradox. There has been progress in population genetics and pathogen DNA analyses. Conclusively, the osteological paradox has made researchers become more reputable in fact, because of the desire to improve methods in bioarchaeology so as to avoid the osteological paradox and present factual data.


  1. Cohen MN, Wood JW, Milner GR. 1994. The osteological paradox reconsidered. Curr Anthr 35(5):629-637.
  2. DeWitte, Sharon N & Stojanowski, Christopher M. 2015. The osteological paradox 20 years later: past perspectives, future directions. J Arch Res 23(4):397-450.
  3. Sieke, Thomas. 2013. The osteological paradox and issues of interpretation in paleopathology. Expl Anth 12(1). http://vav.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/vav/article/view/19464.
  4. Wood JW, Milner GR, Harpending HC, Weiss KM, Eisenberg LE, Hutchinson DE, Jankauskas R, Cesnys G, Katzenberg MA, Lukacs JR, McGrath JW, Roth EA, Ubelaker DH, Wilkinson RG. 1992. The osteological paradox: problems of inferring prehistoric health from skeletal samples {and comments and reply}. Curr Anth 33(4):343-370.
  5. Wright, Lori E & Yoder, Cassady J. 1992. Recent progress in bioarchaeology: approaches to the osteological paradox. J Arch Res 33(4):343-370.

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