Osteology is the subdivision of anatomy pertaining to the study of bones of vertebrate animals, including humans. It comprises the names of specific bones of the skeleton, their placement and articulations in relationship to other bones, body proportions, and visible and microscopic features of osseous tissue. Among Greco-Roman anatomists, who followed the Hippocratic proposition that body proportions of the trunk and upper and lower extremities were related to various illnesses, the term skeleton meant a dried body (mummy) as well as the bony framework of a cadaver or a defleshed specimen.
Painters and sculptors of the Renaissance were interested in size and shape relationships of the living body and skeleton, and by the 17th century, systems of measurement using calibrated instruments were invented for scientific and medical purposes. Osteology continues to play a critical role in medicine, as in the fitting of prostheses to severed limbs, and in sports medicine, where size and shape variables of athletes’ bodies may be indicative of success in particular sporting activities. Osteology is relevant to engineering, space travel, architecture, and anthropological investigations of prehistoric and modern human skeletons.
Systems for measuring and describing morphological features of the human skull, dentition, and postcranial bones of skeletal, cadaveral, and living subjects constitute the methodology of anthropometry. Standards for taking measurements and classifying size and shape variables evolved in the mid-17th century in Europe, along with measuring instruments. A century later, “schools of anthropometry” were established in France by Paul Broca (1824-1880) and his successors Leonce-Pierre Manouvrier (1850-1927), Paul Topinard (1830-1911), Theodore Hamy (1842-1908), and Armand de Quatrefages (1810-1892); in Germany by Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) and Rudolf Martin (18641925); in England by Karl Pearson (1857-1956) and Geoffrey M. Morant (1899-1964). In the United States, Ales Hrdlicka (1869-1943) of the Smithsonian Institution introduced methodologies of the French school, but Earnest A. Hooton (1887-1954) of Harvard University taught the anthropometric standards he had learned from Robert R. Marret (1866-1943) and Arthur Keith (1866-1955) while studying in England. The professions of these investigators of osteological diversity were in anatomy, medicine and pathology, anthropology, and biometrics. Their research goals were human racial classification, phylogeny based upon studies of assumed relationships between fossil hominid specimens and living populations, biological affinities of humans to other primates, and more recently, an expansion into questions about growth and development, health and nutrition, genetics, and applications of osteology and anthropometry to human identification in medical-legal contexts (forensic anthropology).
Osteology in its anthropometric context acquired a unique nomenclature: craniology and cephalometry with respect to cranial studies of skeletal and cadaveral and living subjects, respectively; osteometry and somatometry of postcranial bones; cranioscopy and anthroposcopy with respect to morphological (non-metric) observations; somatotypology, which focuses on ranges and classification of body forms of cadavers and living subjects. These terms are not widely used today, but osteology and anthropometry remain in scientific parlance.
Among the multiple applications of osteological data in the biological sciences is a developing interest in bone tissue remodeling in response to muscular-skeletal stress. Markers of occupational stress (MOS) or musculoskeletal stress markers (MSM) may be observed in a skeleton in cases where a habitual activity has resulted in the formation of lesions at loci of muscle and ligament attachments. For example, hypertrophy of the supinator crest on the proximal end of an ulna may result from repeated supination and hyperextension movements of the forearm, as in spear-throwing and baseball pitching. Although a specific lesion may be the consequence of several behavioral activities, their recognition, particularly in the presence of an archaeological record containing weaponry, tools for food preparation, or evidence of strenuous boat paddling, may shed light on life ways of extinct populations whose remains have been preserved for osteological analysis. Other current osteological studies conducted by biological anthropologists include examination of fossil and living primate postcranial bones in order to better understand the evolutionary course of patterns of locomotion, including the origins of bipedality, effects of stress experiments on volunteer subjects in order to estimate osseous modifications, and bone scanning to acquire fuller knowledge of microstructures and developmental changes. Thus osteology provides data about our evolutionary history, adaptability to changing and different ecological settings, and medical-legal issues.
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- Wilczak, C., & Kennedy, K. A. R. (1998). Mostly MOS: Technical aspects of identification of skeletal markers in forensic anthropology. In K. Reichs (Ed.), Forensic osteology (2nd ed., pp. 461-490). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.