Skeletal Biology Laboratory

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Research Description: 

Research on health, disease, development, maintenance, and aging of the human and non-human primate skeleton from an evolutionary and biocultural perspective.

Kroeber 196, Lab Phone: 510-643-8393
Representative Publications: 

Social Bioarchaeology, Sabrina C. Agarwal & Bonnie A. Glencross (Editors) 2011

Bone Loss and Osteoporosis: An Anthropological Perspective, Sabrina C. Agarwal & Sam D. Stout (Editors) 2003

Laboratory overview:

Professor Sabrina Agarwal's current main research areas fall into the following categories. Students in the lab are engaged in research in these or lateral areas of interest, and are encouraged to explore other areas of research related to theoretical and methodological issues in bioarchaeology, paleopathology, and bone/dental tissue research in humans and non-human primates.

Re-conceptualization of Methods and Analysis in Bioarchaeology

With my focus on the re-conceptualization of the types of questions being addressed in the study of bone health in the past, I am currently interested in the use of biosocial and complex analyses of bioarchaeological data. For example, there has been a great of interest in the study of bone maintenance, loss and fragility (osteoporosis) in past and modern populations. However, many questions remain as to why the patterns of bone loss and fragility differ between populations in the past, and as compared to modern populations. I am interested in the application of feminist biological and social theory as related to aspects of ontogeny, life course perspectives, and embodiment in the understanding the formation and aging of the skeletal form. This work has resulted in a series of recent papers on this topic in press or in preparation. The quantity and quality of bone tissue is an exceptional bony indicator with which to consider the construction of identity during life as it literally reflects the lived experience of the body crafted at the cellular level through bone remodeling. As such, I am simultaneously actively engaged in the development and application of new and state-of-the art technologies to examine and interpret bone micromorphology/remodeling, biomechanics and bone material properties.

The Role of Sex and Gender in Bone Health

I have also had long-standing interest in the biomedical emphasis and construction of biological sex differences in bone loss and fragility, and as such my current research also moves towards an emphasis on better understanding issues of sex and gender in interpretations of bone loss in the past and present. While the relevance of biological sex in the maintenance and aging of the human skeleton is emphasized in biomedicine, the importance of gender roles in bone health and aging in the past and present has not been widely examined. Two current bioarchaeological projects I have initiated utilize a life course approach that offer insight on the role of sex and gender in bone health. The first, in collaboration with Dr. Bonnie Glencross at the University of Toronto, investigates bone maintenance and fragility in a Neolithic (7400-6000 years cal BCE) population excavated from the site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey. The primary research question is to investigate bone maintenance through the major life cycle experiences, both sexed and gendered. The second bioarchaeological project is aimed at investigating sex and gender differences in bone aging in a skeletal Jomon archaeological sample excavated from sites in the Western Honshu region of Japan. This is a collaborative project supported by a major grant from the Luce Foundation, with senior co-PI Dr. Junko Habu, aimed to understand past lifeways and biocultural diversity of the early complex hunter-gatherers of the Japanese archipelago.

The Influence of Reproductive Behavior on Bone Maintenance and Fragility

While it is known that both parity and lactation are highly involved in bone metabolism, the effects of reproduction on the maternal skeleton and long-term bone fragility is unclear. The maintenance and fragility of the female skeleton cannot be clearly understood without an appreciation of the biological impact of reproductive behavior and physiology. Yet, the effects of parity and lactation on elements of bone quality and strength have not been well investigated. The plasticity of human reproductive behavior under social and cultural constraints makes it difficult to assess the impact of high parity and prolonged lactation on human bone. As such, I have been involved in several projects involving the study of degenerative age and sex-related changes in non-human primate (monkey) skeletal material.  The most recent project employs a large sample of nonhuman primate skeletons of previously captive macaques with known life history, in collaboration with Dr. Yuzuru Hamada at the Kyoto University Primate Research Centre in Inuyama, Japan. In this project, we particularly focused on investigating the combined effects of growth, aging, and reproduction on the maternal skeleton. A second project with graduate student Ashley Lipps and collaborator Lorena Havill of the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) is examining the relationship between genetic inheritance of traits and reproduction on cortical and trabecular bone micro-organization in a captive baboon colony. 

Plasticity of the Skeleton in Growth and Aging

The overall emphasis in bioarchaeological studies of bone maintenance has been primarily on adults, resulting in an incomplete picture of the influence of biosocial experiences in childhood and adolescence on later bone integrity. I am very interested in the role of plasticity during growth and development, and the construction of the adult of skeleton through life history. We are currently investigating these ideas in the Neolithic (7400-6000 years cal BCE) population excavated from the site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey through the study of cortical bone growth and fragility patterns in subadults and adults. We are also investigating the role of growth and development on bone maintenance and fragility in a Roman (I-III cent. AD) archaeological human sample excavated from the necropolis of Velia, Italy, in collaboration with Dr. Luca Bondioli at the Pigorini Museum (Museo Natzionale) Rome. Anthropology graduate student Patrick Beauchense is correlating original data on bone maintenance with data on juvenile pathological and metabolic stress, and contextual historical data on the Roman port city, testing hypotheses on the role of early development on bone loss and fragility.

Bone Nutrition, Maintenance and Remodeling

Diet and nutrition have long been emphasized in the biomedical literature as important in bone growth, maintenance, and fragility. However, while dietary nutrients such as calcium, protein, and vitamin D are frequently discussed in popular literature as integral to bone mass and loss, the role of these and other nutrients are complex and possibly synergistic with other lifestyle factors. More importantly, the role and impact of nutrients vary over the human life course. Examining patterns of bone maintenance and fragility in past populations offers a unique opportunity to observe bone health in groups that had very different diets combined with differing social and cultural lifestyles than our own. I am particularly interested in examining patterns of bone nutrition in conjunction with patterns of bone maintenance and remodeling over the life course, that combined with archaeological and historical information can potentially reveal much on the role of nutrition in bone growth and aging.

Philosophies of Teaching and Learning in Anthropology

I am interested in the philosophies of teaching, particularly those that emphasize collaborative and active learning. I have an ongoing interest in developing and exploring modes of instruction that involve both practice and dialogue in a peer-center setting. Most recently, one major project in this work has involved the ongoing development of the Anthro1: Introduction to Biological Anthropology course at UCB, with funds under a Course Pedagogy Grant from the UCB GSI Teaching and Resource Center (Graduate Division UCB), and with the recently completed doctoral research of Anthropology of graduate student Liz Soluri. I am also engaged with methods of mentoring of graduate student instructors, and explore this work through my recent instruction of the graduate Anthro300 pedagogy course and recently in 2009-10 through the Presidential Chair Fellows Program.