Taphonomy and bone mineral density in a historic pauper cemetery

Understanding how culture shapes skeletal development, maintenance, and decomposition is critical to bioarchaeological studies that depend on skeletal assemblages to make conclusions about past populations. Few studies have thus far focused on how socioeconomic status has impacted bone mineral density and skeletal preservation. To address this, the current study compares bone mineral density in different skeletal collections and taphonomic damage within a single historic Californian skeletal collection. It was hypothesized that (1) cultural factors would impact bone mineral density, (2) that the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (SCVMC) population’s mean bone mineral density is impacted because of its marginalized status, (3) within the SCVMC sample the hospital patients will have lower density than non-patients, and (4) individuals within the SCVMC sample with lower density will have higher rates of taphonomic damage. These hypotheses were tested using second metacarpal radiogrammetry to assess bone mineral density levels in four samples and compare these values across populations. The results indicate that the populations examined in this study do not have significantly different bone mineral density levels but the SCVMC collection’s density is lower than the modern and contemporaneous historic populations examined. Additionally, within the SCVMC collection there was no significant difference in density levels between patients and non-patients. The one hypothesis that was supported was that individuals in the SCVMC collection with lower density levels incurred greater amounts of taphonomic damage than those with higher density levels. This line of study would benefit from using larger and more diverse samples with greater demographic information. It supports previous literature which identifies bone mineral density as a key component in susceptibility to taphonomic processes but does not suggest that culture is a predominantly driving force in determining density levels for populations.