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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Like the earliest Chesapeake colonists, we reflect our contemporary environment and ways of life. Now, comparisons of 17th-century human remains to modern skeletal study collections are telling us just how, and how much, we have changed.

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Who will read the next chapters? The analytical techniques of the sciences of bone studies are advancing rapidly. The skeletal researchers of the future will ask questions that we haven't thought of yet — but the answers will be written in our bones.

Better Diet, Bigger Bones

American-born children began growing taller in colonial times. The rich Chesapeake ecosystem offered a high standard of living, including a diet with protein. Studies show that even the colonists' cattle grew bigger over the course of the 17th century.

Americans today are taller than we have ever been. Despite a dip in the growth curve during the last half of the 19th century (during the Civil War and post-war urbanization), the trend toward increased average height has continued to the present.

Femur of a male, age 42, who weighed 600 lb (272.2 kg) at death
Scapula (left), pelvis (middle), and cranium (right), age 101 years, with extreme bone loss. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Living Longer

As Americans, we are living longer because our diet and health care have improved. In the 17th century, most people died before their mid-40s. In the 21st century, the average American life expectancy is 78 years. More and more Americans are living to be 100 years old!

Femur of a male, age 42, who weighed 600 lb (272.2 kg) at death
Femur of a male, age 42, who weighed 600 lb (272.2 kg) at death. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution


We die of diseases that most colonists did not live long enough to experience. Heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the main threats to our health today. We still suffer from some of the illnesses that afflicted the colonists - dental disease, vitamin deficiencies such as rickets, and infections such as tuberculosis and syphilis - but advances in medical knowledge have led to more effective treatments.

Heftier Bodies, Heavier Bones

Our lives are less strenuous than those of the colonists. We no longer depend on physical labor to survive. Reductions in activity, unbalanced diets, and overnutrition have produced a trend toward obesity in America

Bone grows denser and heavier to support body weight. Up to a point, increases in bone density can indicate healthy bones and better nutrition. Over a lifetime, excessive body weight may make bones stronger, but it also weakens the heart, leads to diabetes, and wears out joints faster.  Learn more about the seemingly normal bone pictured at right.

Becoming Bionic

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Shoulder replacement. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Today we can repair our bodies. Through advances in medical knowledge and surgical intervention, we rebuild bones fractured by trauma and replace worn-out joints with artificial implants.

Modern medicine delivers treatments undreamed of in the 17th century.

 

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