What Can Be Learned from Skeletons that Might Interest Economists, Historians and Other Social Scientists?

Richard H. Steckel

NBER Working Paper No. 9519
Issued in March 2003
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

Economists and other scholars have long sought to measure and analyze long-term trends and differences in social performance. Average stature supplements and lengthens data series on traditional measures of life expectancy and real GDP per capita. This paper presents a methodology for using skeletal remains to greatly extend the chronological and cultural reach of anthropometric measures. Bones are widely available for study and unlike stature, they portray health over the life cycle, depicting both childhood and processes of aging and degeneration. The paper briefly explains seven skeletal measures widely used in physical anthropology and discusses procedures for summarizing community health in the form of an index. Results are based on a sample of over 12,000 individuals who lived at 65 localities in the Western Hemisphere over the past several millennia. Results challenge conceptions of the pre-Columbian disease environment, and the methods can be used to test models of very long-term economic growth and to study important aspects of human welfare during climate change.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w9519

Published: Steckel, Richard H. "What Can Be Learned From Skeletons That Might Interest Economists, Historians, And Other Social Scientists?," American Economic Review, 2003, v93(2,May),213-220. citation courtesy of

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