Combining different disciplines, Leiden University researchers work together to formulate innovative solutions to societal problems. Below is an example from the field of life sciences.

Overview Research in the spotlight

The skeleton as a source of information

Reconstructing the past from bones

Bones contain information about people’s lives such as where they came from, their age at death and which diseases they suffered from. Researchers can deduce a lot from them about a person’s life and about human evolution. This generates leads that could help solve present-day problems, such as how to treat disease and what constitutes a healthy lifestyle.

<p>Leiden archaeologists during excavations at the ‘Paardenmarkt’ in Alkmaar</p>
Leiden archaeologists during excavations at the ‘Paardenmarkt’ in Alkmaar

Osteoarchaeologists study the bones and teeth of bipedal Hominidae that were found during excavations. Modern humans belong to this family as do other species within the homo genus (such as the Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis). Research on the bones of earlier human species increases our knowledge of the past and of the evolution of humans and their spread around the world.

Our picture of human life thus becomes clearer. For instance, we know that humans evolved from apes in Africa and spread from there around the rest of the world. However, we do not know which route they took. In which countries did they settle first and how did they migrate further? Research into the subtle differences in skeletons around the world provides greater clarity about this. It also enables us to explain external differences between populations, for instance in facial structure.
The discovery of several skeletons together provides the opportunity to research a group. If certain traces are found on the bones of all the members of the group, this can be a sign of an issue to do with the joints, such as a disease that everyone within a community contracted or a certain action that everyone performed.If one skeleton differs from the rest, then this person may have enjoyed a special status. For instance, a member of the nobility would have done less physical work than someone from a lower class. This difference is apparent from the signs of wear on the skeleton.

Osteoarchaeological research is also relevant to the present. It provides us with insight into the origin and spread of diseases that have already affected humans for centuries, and it helps improve current research methods for human remains (forensic research). The large number of skeletons that are excavated makes it possible to test new techniques. These can then be used by forensic anthropologists as they try to establish cause of death in murder investigations, and they help provide more information about the victim’s identity. The research of human remains is conducted in the Leiden University Laboratory for Human Osteoarchaeology.