The Study of Skeletons


The skeletal system of humans is just like pillars on which the entire human body stands erect. Skeletons provide support and protection to various internal organs. Humans have an endoskeleton of bones, and animals such as cockroaches, crabs, and other insects have an exoskeleton made of chitin. The study of skeletons is known as Osteology and the people who study skeletons are known as Osteologists. The human body contains 206 bones.

What Does the Study of the Skeleton Tell Us?

In osteology, a person tries to understand the history of an organism, the behaviour of an organism, its zoology etc. This study gives us information related to the evolution and phylogenetic relations with other organisms of the same group or related groups. Bones generally come in between many layers of soil and get fossilised there. Hence bones are preserved for quite a while which can be used to study humans of the ancient period.

Following are the applications of Osteology −

  • Criminal Investigations - Study of bones and remnants helps to understand whether a criminal activity has taken place or not. This is so because bones take a long time to decompose, hence any criminal activity can be detected.

  • Development Biology - Developmental biology is a stream in biology which studies various stages of development and metamorphosis or changes occurring in an organism's body. These bones found during excavation gives an insight as to growth and development related to an organism.

  • It can also give information on specialized organs that they had which helped them survive in ancient environmental conditions.

  • Diet - Information of the diet can be obtained from the bones, by performing various chemical tests on the bones.

  • Human Migration - As these bones get fossilized at different places, we can determine how the migration of humans might have occurred in olden times.

  • Physique - Physique is the physical makeup of an individual. From the bone residues, we can understand the physical makeup and what were body adaptations during ancient era.

  • Environment - If we can study the skeleton or fossils of not only humans but plants and other animals then we can judge the environmental conditions that prevailed in the ancient era.


Osteologists are scientists who understand the types of bones and can decipher information related to an organism. They are highly trained in critically analysing the bone and bone remnants of animals or humans found during excavation. From these bones, they can determine the size, shape, sex, age, race, lifestyle, and sometimes even occupation of an organism. They can also decipher any criminal activities from bones.

Osteologists first conduct a visual examination of the specimen and the surrounding area. They critically study the bones and teeth of the skeleton found and take note of its dimensions. In the second step, they take the human skeleton to the laboratory where proper physical and chemical analysis of the skeleton is done.

Human Osteoarchaeology

The scientific study of Human skeleton remains obtained from archaeological sites is known as Human Osteoarchaeology. The following things can be obtained from Human osteoarchaeology-

  • It helps to get details related to the humans of a particular era.

  • It gives information related to their food, health, and genetic relationships.

  • It depicts the different lifestyles followed during ancient times.

  • It gives us information related to the evolution and migration of humans.

  • Information related to diseases such as osteoporosis or any type of poisoning or any specific ailment of the ancient era can be obtained.

The following methods are used in the study of human osteoarchaeology.

  • A list of all the bones obtained is made. It includes both long bones and teeth.

  • Examination of the exterior part of the bones is done to check for any aberrations, breaks or any disease..

  • Also colour, shape and size are examined to determine whether the individual was a male or female; child or adult.

  • Bones are dissected in the vertical plane to understand the honeycomb structure of the bone. If the structure is compactly arranged, then the person was young and did not have any problems related to bones.

  • If the honeycomb structure is loosely arranged, then it means the individual was old and might have bone-related diseases.

  • The pelvic symphysis is used to determine age- if the pelvic symphysis is large and soft then the individual is a female and if not then the individual is a male. Large and soft pelvic symphysis helps to support pregnancy.

  • Based on the fusion of the sutures present on the skull, the age of the organism can be estimated. i.e if the organism is young the sutures might not be completely fused, all sutures are fused then they are old individuals.

  • Teeth are used to determine the diet followed. i.e. if an individual's teeth are in good condition it states he/she is following a good healthy diet and also has enough money to maintain them.

  • Wrist of an individual can state what occupation he/she followed, for eg. If bony ridges are formed at muscle joints, then he/she is using hands for earning a living such as doing some cooking or serving work. etc.

  • There are various chemical methods such as radiometric dating which involves the use of radioactive isotopes of various elements such as Carbon or Uranium.

  • The half-life of these elements is studied to determine the age of the fossil or the bones obtained.

  • Tribal or Race of a person can be determined by some chemical analysis on the DNA obtained.

After all this information is gathered and a report is generated which gives complete information regarding the individual.


The study of skeletons is known as Osteology and is used to understand the history of an organism. It gives a complete overview of the organism’s health, habits, lifestyle, sex, age, race etc. To understand this a thorough study of its bones has to be done. In modern times, there are various, physical and chemical methods available which can give us an accurate estimation of all these details. Studying the human skeleton is known as Human Osteoarchaeology.


Q1. What is forensic anthropology?

Ans. Forensic anthropology is the study of the human skeletons to investigate any criminal event which might have taken place. It is basically used to find the age, sex, time of death and method of murder, etc. People working in this field are known as forensic anthropologists.

Q2. Different types of bones present in the human body?

Ans. The human body contains 206 bones. They are differentiated based on the length- long bones and short bones; based on size- Big bones (Femur, Humour) and small bones(malus, incus, stapes); based on shapes- flat bones or irregular bones.

Q3. What is bioarchaeology?

Ans. The study of animal and human bones which are excavated from various sites is known as Bioarchaeology. This term was stated by British archaeologist Grahame Clark in 1972. It basically studies the evolutionary and developmental details of an organism.

Q4. How epiphyseal plate joining determines an individual's age?

Ans. An epiphyseal plate is a small presence in between two joints of a bone. When young this plate is not fused and is separated from the other nearby joints. When a person ages this plate fuses with the other joints and no gap is visible. Hence age is determined

Updated on: 26-Dec-2022


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