Mortuary archaeology has always been viewed as one of the most richly evocative sources of evidence for past social systems, particularly those without writing. However, the political context within which archaeology developed as a discipline, especially in countries with a colonial past, has made it difficult or impossible for the burial record to be utilized to its full potential. Ironically, this moratorium on the use of human remains for research purposes has been accompanied by the development of new analytical techniques, including ancient DNA (aDNA) and chemical analysis of skeletal material, which provide powerful tools for understanding complex social relationships and mobility within and between ancient populations. This review focuses on the United States and Europe because of the close relationship between their scholarly communities, as a result of which the limits placed on mortuary archaeology in the United States has had and continues to have a direct impact on the development of the discipline in numerous European countries. The inferential potential of bioarchaeology in particular is discussed against the backdrop of these sociohistorical developments, and the case studies presented highlight the powerful array of interdisciplinary approaches now being brought to bear on our understanding of ancient social systems.


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