Phenotypic approaches for understanding patterns of intracemetery biological variation

Christopher Stojanowski, Michael A. Schillaci

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

143 Scopus citations


This paper reviews studies of phenotypic inheritance and microevolutionary processes in archaeological populations using data on cranial and dental phenotypic variation, often referred to as paleogenetics or biodistance analysis. The estimation of biological distances between populations, or among individuals within populations, is one component of bioarchaeological research on past populations. In this overview, five approaches that focus on morphological variation within cemeteries are summarized: kinship and cemetery structure analysis, postmarital residence analysis, sample aggregate phenotypic variability, temporal microchronology, and age-structured phenotypic variation. Previous research, theoretical justifications, and methods are outlined for each topic. Case studies are presented that illustrate these theoretical and methodological bases, as well as demonstrate the kinds of inferences possible using these approaches. Kinship and cemetery structure analysis seeks to identify the members of family groups within larger cemeteries or determine whether cemeteries were kin-structured. Analysis of sex-specific phenotypic variation allows estimation of postmarital residence practices, which is important for understanding other aspects of prehistoric social organization. Analysis of aggregate phenotypic variability can be used to infer site formation processes or cemetery catchment area. The study of temporal microchronologies can be used to evaluate provisional archaeological chronologies or study microevolutionary processes such as adaptive selection or changing patterns of gene flow. Finally, age-structured phenotypic variation can be reflective of selection processes within populations or it can be used as a measure of morbidity, growth arrest, and early mortality within past populations. Use of phenotypic data as a genotypic proxy is theoretically sound, even at small scales of analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-88
Number of pages40
JournalAmerican journal of physical anthropology
Issue numberSUPPL. 43
StatePublished - 2006


  • Bioarchaeology
  • Biodistance
  • Morphology
  • Phenotypic variation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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