The bioarchaeology of kinship: Proposed revisions to assumptions guiding interpretation

Bradley E. Ensor, Joel D. Irish, William F. Keegan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Bioarchaeology provides sophisticated techniques for estimating intra- and intercemetery biological relationships (i.e., biodistances), which can significantly expand anthropological research on kinship, explaining multiple dimensions of social life and identity in prehistory. However, some assumptions guiding the interpretation of results may need reconsideration. Although it is often assumed that descent groups should be homogeneous, social organizational and marriage practices actually produce heterogeneity within descent groups. Interpretations of postmarital residence typically assume that spouses are buried together in the same cemetery, whereas cross-cultural ethnographic patterns suggest that postmortem location does not universally follow residence. Nevertheless, cross-cultural data do indicate that postmortem location is generally predictable by type of descent group and whether membership with natal groups is maintained or transferred upon marriage. These issues are discussed, leading to alternative models on intra- and intercemetery biodistance expectations for matrilineal descent groups, for patrilineal descent groups with and without wives’ membership transfers, and for a range of smaller groups under bilateral descent. The influence of common marriage alliance systems on intra- and intergroup phenotypic heterogeneity versus homogeneity are also described. The proposed biodistance expectations for interpreting different kinship and marriage strategies may better position bioarchaeologists to engage other subfields and make substantial contributions to kinship research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)739-761
Number of pages23
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


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