eli5 Anthropological Renditions


I always see articles of anthropologist finding bones from a long time ago (prehistoric) And through research they end up with super detailed description of the kind of lives they lived, what they ate, what they might had worked at, and even how they looked. What I am most curious is about the visual renditions. Even more recently with Egypt renditions.

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I think the way they do it is they look at the DNA of the bones and compare it to that of the modern human genome. Iirc there’s certain parts that when put together can determine how someone might have looked.

They rarely know for certain, even if the information is presented to us that way. They derive their information from the physical evidence.

So they could look at the teeth and see very little decay but lots of wear. And they could derive that the person ate a diet that was not rich in sugar but was rich in grains. Or if the teeth were not as worn as they might expect for a person of that age they might derive that grain was not a large part of their diet and that the person mostly ate something softer.

As for what a person might have looked like, that can be done by reconstructing the tissue of the face. Things like where tendons attach to bone can be used to derive the shape of the muscles, which in turn influence the shape of the face. But they’re not making a definitive or exact reconstruction. They’re going to use their best educated guess, based on what they know about musculature and so on. [This video](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bJB4H64Nao) shows the process.

A persons employment can be derived from their bones too. Someone who sat all day is going to have different wear on their joints than someone who was standing. Someone who was working with heavy weights might have damage or wear in their back. Someone who weaved or sewed might have damage or wear on their hands.

That kind of stuff.

Ok so archeologists are rarely looking at JUST the bones. The stuff *around* the bones is usually very important and gives us a lot of additional information. This is true of both the immediate surroundings of the bones, and their general geographical location. Stuff that’s immediately around the bones might be things like weapons or tools or other artifacts that may have been buried with the individual, and these can tell us a lot about the person. If they’re buried with a lot of hunting tools it’s likely the person was a hunter in life. And let’s say we find arrow heads with this dead hunter, and a couple miles away we found the remains of a settlement that also contained very similar arrow heads, and carbon dating (or other forms of dating) lets us know that the dead hunter, and the settlement were from about the same period in time. It’s likely then that this dead hunter and the people in the settlement were the same group of people. And in this settlement we find a pit with a bunch of very old garbage in it and amongst the garbage we find the shoulder blade of a deer with an arrow head embedded in it. When you put it all together you know that this person was likely a hunter, that lived with this group of people, and hunted and ate animals including deer. That’s quite a lot! The bones themselves are just one small piece of a much bigger puzzle and when you put all the pieces together you get a much more complete picture!

Now since this relies on putting pieces together sometimes we do it wrong, and we don’t understand the pieces we have, or put them together incorrectly, but the more work we do, the more we find, the more advanced our scientific techniques get, the clearer and more likely to be actuate our pictures of these people that lived long ago become.