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Bioarchaeology & Holocene Human Variation

Bioarchaeology is the analysis of human biological remains from an archaeological context, to better understand how the effects of past culture systems, anatomical adaptations and human variation present themselves biologically in the skeleton. To reconstruct the lives of past populations, a biocultural approach should be used. I use biological indicators from the skeleton to understand past human societies; their biology, migration patterns, health, culture and subsistence patterns.

I am particularly interested in how the skeleton has changed over a known time period in response to environmental adaptation and genetic admixture. Through this research, I focus on how people lived and assess their biological quality of life. I am interested in the mechanisms behind human variation because I have found that there is more morphological variation in the skeleton than previously assumed. My initial results showed that, until very recently, there was a greater amount of skeletal variation within these populations than previously thought. In addition to a better understanding on the amount of variation within the Holocene, this research can be used for cross-regional and cultural comparisons. This research has three principle aims: to look at health and disease indicators from the skeleton and teeth; the other is based on morphological and metrical examination of human skeletal remains; and more recently the inclusion of ancient DNA in some cases to better understand local migration patterns and to contextualize biological relationships among individuals in burials. If as a student, you are interested in this area of research to better understand human variation in the Holocene please contact me.

Iron Age Southern Africans

To assess health and quality of life for Iron Age southern Africans, in collaboration with others, I conducted bioarchaeological analyses of skeletons from Zambia, including multiple studies of the post-crania, crania and dentition. The sample was excavated between 1959 and 1965 by Fagan et al. and was the focus of a two-volume series titled ‘Iron Age Cultures in Zambia’ (Fagan 1967; Fagan et al. 1969). From two archaeological sites (Ingombe Ilede and Isamu Pati), 56 human burials were found. Despite them being from different localities these sites are temporally, spatially and archaeologically related and date back to the 7-15th centuries. These sites were threatened by development and excavated under rescue archaeology in the 1960’s.

The results of the studies conducted show these people generally maintained good health, despite being agropastoralists, with a diet mainly reliant on grains (Int J Osteoarchaeol 24: 100-110; Int J Osteoarchaeol 26: 324-336, 2014), which would typically be reflected by poorer health. These analyses were done in collaboration with Prof. T. Huffman and Dr. A. Gallagher (University of the Witwatersrand, SA).

This study provides information on demographic factors (sex and age), trauma, infectious diseases as well as physiological and mechanical indicators of stress. Conditions known to be caused by diet, food processing, nutritional intake and cultural systems were found, with low levels of degenerative joint disease and no evidence of trauma. The low levels of infectious disease and physiological stress (through little evidence of cribra orbitalia and linear enamel hypoplasia) indicated data similar to that of contemporary populations in developed nations. Together, the data presented indicates a relatively healthy population with a well-balanced diet and low afflictions of infectious and parasitic diseases.

The innovative dental study analysed pathology and trauma in teeth using morphology and radiography. This was done in collaboration with a dental anthropologist Dr. A-M. Grimoud (Toulouse University, France). Dental anthropology is an important area of study as teeth can be indicators of overall health and disease, while also providing information on cultural practices. The dental results supported the overall bioarchaeological study, in that Iron Age southern Africans are healthy while exhibiting rates of conditions and physiological stress similar to modern people in developed nations. Agriculturalists are suggested to have poorer health, so these results are surprising and go against the global consensus, and thus require further exploration.

Apart from dental wear quantity, our study included dental wear direction, which is largely unrecorded in bioarchaeological dental studies. We found sex differences in wear direction, which likely represents the use of teeth as a tool for an activity restricted to one sex, but exactly which activity this is, remains unknown. Furthermore, most pathologies were found with radiography alone, showing the necessity of using both radiography and morphology to fully understand dental health in past populations (Int J Osteoarchaeol 26: 324-336, 2014). Thus, the level of dental conditions affecting archaeological samples is grossly underrepresented without radiography. This research is an example of people being understood in their own biocultural context and reports on a crucial technological advancement to be considered for more accurate results in future dental studies.

To expand on these results, funding was secured to explore teeth of Iron Age Southern Africans, to test if the health discovered above holds true in other samples. Micro-CT analysis was used to build on the previous study above with the use of technologically advanced tools for examining teeth. We have expanded our sample to 40 individuals from the Iron Age. With micro-CT, our initial aim was to better visualise and quantify some of our previous findings, i.e. fractures and dental modifications. Then we planned to examine the teeth in their entirety from our new Iron Age samples. The micro-CT data was collected in the summer of 2014 in collaboration with Dr. Kristian Carlson and Dr. Tea Jashashvili at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. This data is being analysed in collaboration with Dr. A-M Grimoud.

Ancient Nubians - North Africa

In collaboration with Prof. M. Buzon (Purdue University, USA) we conducted research using morphometric analyses of the postcranial skeleton to explore human variability in her samples from Tombos, an ancient Nubian site (modern Sudan). Tombos is an important ancient site to explore the interaction between Egyptians and Nubians due to its critical location on the Nile River, which controlled trade from the south. This site provides a unique opportunity to examine human variation over a short period of time, as it has two cemeteries during the New Kingdom ~1400-1070 BC (Egypt ruled Nubia) and Napatan ~1070-656 BC (Nubia ruled Egypt). These cemeteries differ in time by approx. 400 years. This period is notable as major socio-political changes occurred in ruling Egypt within this time. The results show the Napatan people were consistently larger in size with little variation in shape in comparison with people during the New Kingdom period (Int J Osteoarchaeol 26: 324-336. 2016). This level of variation was surprising, as previous research on the crania suggested more similarity, thus raising the question of whether this is the result of genetic admixture or environmental adaptation. The numerous differences in size, with few in shape, suggest an environmental reasoning, since size is more susceptible to nutritional stress, disease, and physical activity.

This study also demonstrates that morphometric analyses of multiple bones and measurements are an important supplement to other bioarchaeological analyses to provide a broader view of physical changes that occur over short periods of time.

Bronze Age Northern China

As part of an international collaboration between South Africa (Department of Science and Technology) and China (Chinese Academy of Sciences), I collected Bronze Age northern Chinese cranial and postcranial skeletal data. Through this experience, I established a collaboration with Prof. W. Liu and Prof. X. Wu (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology, China) who assisted with understanding the results from a biocultural perspective. Through our cranial study we explored population continuity and discontinuity in northern China on two previously unstudied archaeological populations. The expectation was that these people would be Chinese. However, to our surprise, the results suggest that both archaeological populations were Mongolians living in China during the Warring States and Han Dynasty, while retaining their cultural and genetic Mongolian identity (HOMO 67: 369-383, 2016). This is a great example of how exploring past populations through the biological remnants can reveal unexpected information about past peoples and places. Further, how historical records can be prejudiced and are not always reliable sources of information.

As part of this collaboration with my colleagues in China and a student, Mr Xing, we analysed geometric morphometric measurements of eye orbit shape in Asian, African and European human populations. Population variation of the eye orbit is especially important in forensic anthropological studies where researchers attempt to reconstruct the biological profile of a person (Anthropol Sci 121(1): 29-34). In addition to being able to quantitatively use human eye orbit shape to estimate population affinity, we determined the areas of the orbit that were most variable between population groups.

Later Stone Age southern Africans

In a bid to better understand and expand our knowledge on Later Stone Age people and their past lifeways using a bioarchaeological approach that is analysed in a temporal and spatial framework to study population health and continuity during the Holocene. These people and their remnants of culture have been heavily researched through time, with the primary source of data being artefactual in origin. Biological data have been obtained from remains for dietary reconstruction using stable isotope analyses of bone and teeth (Sealy 1984, 1989; 2010). Morphometric analyses of bone and teeth can be valuable to explore the historical origins, landscape use, cultural lifeways and health of these people. The biological remnants of Later Stone Age people have been studied (e.g. Rightmire, 1975; Hausman, 1982; Pfeiffer & Sealy, 2006; Stynder et al., 2007b; Ginter, 2011; Kurki et al., 2012, Black, 2014), however, most studies have focused on a specific archaeological site or region. The prehistoric human skeletal record is most well-preserved during the Holocene (the last 10000 years), which is the focus of this research. The number of Holocene human skeletal remains from the coastal region along the southern and south-western coasts of South Africa is rich (Deacon, 1982; Parkington, 1984; Sealy & van der Merwe, 1986; Stynder, 2006). This means most of what we know about these peoples from a biological perspective is biased towards coastal dwellers.

Funded by the National Research Foundation in collaboration with Dr. J. Hemingway (Wits University, South Africa) and Prof. J. Sealy (UCT, South Africa) a multidisciplinary approach will be used to understand these people in their own genetic and sociocultural contexts, as well as the effect of their economic practices over both time and space. From a bioarchaeological perspective examining skeletons from coastal versus in-land populations and analysed in a framework of age and sex biases through time and space in southern Africa, questions regarding the behavioural patterns and cultural practices of these past people can be explored. The aim of this research is not to re-invent, rather integrate information obtained from the skeleton to better understand Later Stone Age people during the Holocene (last 10000 years) (i.e. their periods of migration or isolation, population demographics, quality of life, health, activities and disease) from a biological perspective. Using indicators of health & lifestyle such as dental pathology, tooth wear, physical activity and trauma patterns analysed through a temporal and spatial framework will allow us to better understand these people. Studying morphometric changes and genetic variation in the Later Stone Age can provide insight into population continuity, culture, migration, lifstyle and health.

With methodological advancement the techniques employed in the proposed study will provide more detailed biocultural information. For dental analyses (wear and pathology) a systematic approach of recording will expand on what is known and provide a holistic perspective of dental disease, trauma, and cultural practices (dietary and non-dietary). The crania will be analysed using three-dimensional surface scanning, thereby quantifying traditionally non-metric cranial morphology, reducing subjective bias, and facilitating the ability of the researcher to explore variation. With increasing molecular advancements in ancient DNA, individuals that were previously impossible to sample can now be examined and targeted.


Le H, He L, Gibbon VE, Xiao X, Wang B. 2020. Individual Centred social-care approach: Using Computer tomography to assess a traumatic brain injury in an Iron Age individual from China. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1-9.  https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2928

Gibbon VE. 2020. African ancient DNA research requires robust ethics and permission protocols. Nature Reviews Genetics https://doi.org/10.1038/s41576-020-00285

Gibbon VE, Davies B. 2020. Holocene Khoesan health: a biocultural analysis of cranial pathology and trauma. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2854

Tawha T, Dinkele E, Mole C, Gibbon VE. 2020. Assessing zygomatic shape and size for estimating sex and ancestry in a South African sample. Science & Justice 60: 284-292. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scijus.2020.01.003

Mazengenya P, Mokoena P, Billings BK, Bidmos M, Gibbon VE. 2019. Development of discriminant functions to estimate sex in upper limb bones for mixed ancestry South Africans. Science and Justice 59(6): 660-666. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scijus.2019.06.007

Gibbon VE, Buzon MR. 2018. A diachronic examination of biomechanical changes in skeletal remains from Tombos in ancient Nubia. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 69: 158-166 (rank 51/85; impact factor .790; citations: GS:0; WOS:0; S:0). DOI: 10.1016/j.jchb.2018.07.005

Gibbon VE, Carlson K, Grimoud AM, Jashashvili, T. 2018. Use of high resolution computed tomography to diagnose ante-mortem dental root fractures in archaeological samples. International Journal of Paleopathology 22:143-148 (rank 40/56; impact factor 1.299; citations: GS:0; WOS:0; S:0). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2017.10.004

Grimoud AM, Gibbon VE, Ribot I. 2017. Predictive factors for alveolar fenestration and dehiscence. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 68(3): 167-175 (rank 51/85; impact factor .790; citations: GS:0; WOS:0; S:0). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jchb.2017.03.005

Grimoud AM, Gibbon VE. 2017. Dental wear quantity and direction in Chalcolithic and Medieval populations from Southwest France. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 68: 1-9 (rank 51/85; impact factor .790; citations: GS:1; WOS:0; S:0). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jchb.2016.11.001

Gibbon VE, Porter TA, Wu X, Liu W. 2016. Craniometric examination of Longxian and Qi Li Cun archaeological sites to assess population continuity in ancient northern China. HOMO-Journal of Comparative Human Biology 67: 369-383 (rank 51/85; impact factor .790; citations: GS:0; WOS:0; S:0). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jchb.2016.06.003

Gibbon VE, Buzon M. 2016. Morphometric assessment of the appendicular skeleton in samples from Tombos in Upper Nubia. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 26: 324-336 (rank 33/85; impact factor 1.435; citations: GS:5; WOS:1; S:5). https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2424

Gibbon VE, Grimoud AM. 2014. Dental pathology, trauma and attrition in a Zambian Iron Age Sample: A macroscopic and radiographic investigation. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 24: 439-458 (rank 33/85; impact factor 1.435; citations: GS:8; WOS:5; S:6).

Gibbon VE, Gallagher A, Huffman TN. 2014. Bioarchaeological analysis of Iron Age human skeletons from Zambia. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 24: 100-110 (rank 33/85; impact factor 1.435; citations: GS:5; WOS:3; S:3).

Xing, S, Gibbon V, Clarke R, Liu W. 2013. populations. Anthropological Science 121(1): 1-11 (rank 46/49; impact factor 0.774; citations: GS:22; WOS:10; S:9).

Gibbon VE, Penny CB, Ruff P, Štrkalj G. 2009. Minimally invasive bone extraction method for DNA analyses. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139: 596-599 (rank 8/85; impact factor 2.84 citations: GS:6; WOS:5; S:3). 

Gibbon VE, Paximadis M, Štrkalj G, Ruff P, Penny CB. 2009. Novel methods of molecular sex identification from skeletal tissue using the amelogenin gene. Forensic Science International: Genetics 3: 74-79 (rank 1/16; impact factor 4.722; citations: GS:38; WOS:25; S:30). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsigen.2008.10.007

Bidmos MA, Gibbon VE, Štrkalj G. 2010. skeletal remains in South Africa. The South African Journal of Science 106: 29-34 (rank 30/64; impact factor 1.453; citations: GS:30; WOS:9; S:11). DOI: 10.4102/sajs. v106i11/12.238

Gibbon VE, Štrkalj G, Paximadis M, Ruff P, Penny C. 2010. The sex profile of skeletal remains from a cemetery of Chinese indentured labourers in South Africa. South African Journal of Science 106(7/8): 65-68 (rank 30/64; impact factor 1.453; citations: GS:4; WOS:1; S:2). DOI: 10.4102/sajs. v106i7/8.191

Gibbon VE, Štrkalj G, Harington J, Penny CB. 2008. A review of DNA analyses of archaeological and ancient tissues. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(2): 145-149 (impact factor 0.790; citations GS:0; WOS:0; S:0). DOI: 10.1080/00359190809519218