Learning from the 'cradle of Chinese civilisation'

In November, bioarchaeologist Dr Sian Halcrow, Associate Professor at the University of Otago, was awarded an $826,000 Marsden grant to study the impacts of social inequality on human health in ancient China. It is the first-ever New Zealand-led bioarchaeological project in China. Dr Halcrow and Dr Melanie Miller, Postdoctoral Fellow and central investigator on the project, spoke with the Asia Media Centre about their work.

Congratulations on your recent Marsden grant. What’s the funding for?

Sian: The funding is for a three-year intensive study into the development of inequality in Chinese society from the prehistoric period to the historic Han Dynasty period (5000 BC to AD 202). Social inequality is the hallmark for state-level societies worldwide, and has significant repercussions for nearly half the world’s population who now live in poverty, affecting women and children most severely. Unequal access to adequate nutrition and healthcare has serious consequences for billions of people. To understand health disparities today, we need to study how inequality developed and how it impacted people in the past.

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Why choose China for your study?

Sian: The fertile Yellow River valley, known as the “cradle of Chinese civilisation”, witnessed the development of one of the most durable states in the world. Recent research in this region has shown a deterioration in health and quality of diet for women in the Bronze Age compared with the preceding Neolithic period. To fully understand this change, we will assess health and diet in large skeletal samples that cover socio-political development from the early agricultural societies to the stratified Han Dynasty. Using new methods to uncover childhood gender and diet, we will develop an original model to explain the development of diet and health inequality over the life course during five millennia of profound social change.

Sian Halcrow

Dr Sian Halcrow says to understand health disparities today, we must look to the past.

What are the challenges as an archaeologist working in another country and culture?

Sian: It is both a privilege and a challenge to work in Asia. Much of my recent work has been in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia). As foreigners working in Asia there are varied ethical considerations we need to be aware of working with the skeletal remains themselves and the working relationships that we have with local researchers.

Melanie: China is unique because there has been extensive archaeological research in recent decades but most of this research has only been published in Chinese scientific reports. More recently, Chinese archaeological research is being shared with a larger international community. China requires that most analyses of archaeological materials are conducted within China, so our chemical analyses are all done in labs in collaboration with Chinese colleagues. This is sometimes is challenging due to time constraints (foreigner visas are often for very limited periods), or the desire to incorporate cutting-edge techniques that may only exist in labs in other areas of the world.

 "As foreigners working in Asia there are varied ethical considerations we need to be aware of working with the skeletal remains."

What do you hope to achieve from your study?

Sian: We hope this project will shed light onto the development of gender-based disparity in childhood health and diet, and the lifelong effects this had on people. Research has shown childhood is a critical period where things like poor nutrition and disease exposure can have short and long-term effects on human health outcomes. Therefore in ancient populations where some groups may have been predisposed to poorer or more favourable conditions, we can study their skeletons to try and understand how different aspects of their life experience led to different outcomes. We are also using a unique combination of advanced techniques in our studies which have the potential to reveal more detailed information about individual life histories, allowing us a more personalised glance into the lives of ancient peoples.

Archaeology in China is a hot topic with Te Papa’s summer exhibition showcasing some of the collection from the tomb of Qin Shihuang, China’s First Emperor, including the famous terracotta warriors. Any thoughts from an archaeologist’s point of view?

Melanie: Years ago I was involved in a scientific engagement program at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco when the terracotta warriors came to that museum. A team of graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley were archaeological ambassadors and the museum provided a space adjacent to the exhibit for us to talk to visitors about the work archaeologists do and the amazing tomb of Emperor Qin. It was an incredible opportunity for me to talk about the role of bioarchaeology in reconstructing our knowledge about the past, and at the time I had no idea that my archaeological path would one day bring me to working in China.

Melanie China4

Dr Melanie Miller in Jinan, Shandong.

The terracotta warriors and Emperor Qin’s tomb are truly a wonder to marvel at and spark our curiosity about the society who built this monumental tomb for their leader thousands of years ago. I hope that anyone who can visit the terracotta warrior exhibit at Te Papa is struck with the same sense of awe and wonder, and I encourage them to think about the universal experiences, such as death and honouring a life, that all humans share.

Images supplied by Dr Sian Halcrow and Dr Melanie Miller

- Asia Media Centre