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Afro-American biohistory: Theoretical and methodological considerations

Lesley Marguerite Rankin-Hill, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The dissertation research addresses questions and issues concerning the study of Afro-American biohistory. Afro-American health and lifestyles were investigated from an integrative bio-cultural framework that interrelates demographical, historical, socio-cultural, and biological factors. The central focus of the dissertation research was the bio-social experiences and conditions of free, urban dwelling Afro-Americans in 19th century Philadelphia. The First African Baptist Church cemetery population, interred circa 1823-1841, studied represents a sample of that Afro-American community. Theoretical considerations centered around the questions and approaches to the study of health and disease patterns in historical Afro-American populations in the Americas. Methodological considerations centered on the contributions of physical anthropological methods (skeletal biology, paleodemography, paleopathology, histology and bio-cultural modeling) in assessing the health of historical Afro-American populations. Skeletal biological methods included paleodemographic and paleopathologic (including histologic) assessment of health and disease status. The objectives of the research were to: (1) provide a synthesis of the relevant questions and issues regarding Afro-American health and illness prior to the twentieth century; (2) propose a protocol and framework for studying Afro-American health and lifestyles in the Americas; (3) begin to reconstruct the lifestyle(s) of 19th century urban Philadelphia Afro-Americans and of the First African Baptist Church (FABC) cemetery population in particular; (4) undertake a comprehensive health status assessment of the FABC skeletal material. All adult (100%) FABC dentition (n = 51) available for study exhibited enamel defects; of these 84.3% had multiple defects. The peak period of onset of hypoplasias was ages 2.0-4.0 years, most probably associated with the weaning period and infectious disease. Infectious disease rates (25.3%) were lower than other Afro-American skeletal series. The incidence of trauma in the FABC population was low (17.3%), with the majority occurring in older males. The highest mortality (25%) was for infants ($<$1 year). Life expectancy at age twenty was 24.7 years. FABC skeletal population, as representative of the FABC congregation members and free Philadelphia Afro-Americans, were generally healthier than their slave or emancipated counterparts. Stress indicators point to episodes of nutritional and disease stress which affected fetal growth, infants and younger children, reproductive age females and young adult males who may have been at greater risk due to early entry into the labor force.

Subject Area

Physical anthropology|Black history|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Rankin-Hill, Lesley Marguerite, "Afro-American biohistory: Theoretical and methodological considerations" (1990). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9035390.