For bioarchaeologist and recent Dan David Prize winner Dr. Efthymia Nikita it all began, as it often does in archaeology, with a bit of bone. A cow tooth to be more precise. And then with a full human skeleton.
As an undergraduate student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Nikita was taking part in an excavation at a Neolithic site in northern Greece when the dig’s zooarchaeologist was called on to analyze a tooth which had been uncovered.
He was able to rattle off what animal the tooth came from, what kind of tooth it was and even the age-at-death of the animal. But a few weeks later, Nikita recalls in a Zoom interview, when a whole human skeleton was found, there was no one on the excavation team who could give those kinds of answers.
That is when she decided to become a bioarchaeologist.
“We had experts for everything—pottery, animals, stones--but though we had an entire human skeleton, no one could say even the most basic thing about it,” said Nikita who since went on to earn a PhD in Biological Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is now an assistant professor in bioarchaeology at the Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus.
“It was a shame to have all this material culture and organic remains that we could say so much about, but when we had the remains of the humans who actually made and used the material culture, and interacted with the plants and animals, we could not say anything about them.”
Bioarchaeology and osteoarchaeology are basically two ways to describe the same profession, which studies human remains, depending on whether you are an American or a European, she explained.
It is a field of the archaeological sciences which is quite gender-balanced and, in her experience, there are actually more women than men, she said.
But that doesn’t mean her career has been without challenges for her and her husband, an architectural designer, who moved to Cyprus from Greece for her work.
As the parents of a young son during a pandemic, they joined the many other young parents who were learning how to juggle new methods of parenthood—doing the tasks which needed less mental focus when her son was awake, saving the more complex ones for the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep.
Since all of their family is back in Greece, they don’t have a network of support, which can be especially challenging when continuing with her field work across the Mediterranean involves being away from home for weeks at a time.
“It is challenging, I have to be extremely flexible and it takes a lot of discipline to organize everything as efficiently as possible, but this also results in a lot of self-imposed pressure,” said Nikita.
She has studied human skeletal remains from prehistoric to post-Medieval contexts, investigating health and disease, diet, activity and demography.
The current central theme of her research is human mobility of the past, exploring patterns of human movement in the prehistoric Aegean and Byzantine Mediterranean.
“Mobility is a fundamental characteristic of the human existence,” she said. “Mobility defines many aspects of our life, for example, our diet or our exposure to new diseases. Also, it affects our identity, whether we are the ones moving or accepting others, since it impacts how we perceive ourselves and those around us.”
We must remember that mobility does not just cover migration, but also includes regional mobility on a small scale. Regional mobility was a defining characteristic for many human groups in different contexts.
“As archaeologists, if we are trying to make a link between the past and contemporary society, it is important to show with specific data to people today that mobility has been a defining human characteristic over the past 10,000 years,” she said. “Such an understanding may help fight political biases that surround modern mobility.”
Nikita uses two methods to study mobility—one is macroscopic, where she observes the skeletal remains with the naked eye, taking measurements of the cranium and the teeth, and recording specific morphological traits, such as an extra root or an extra cusp on the teeth.
The size of the cranium and the teeth, as well as selected morphological traits are largely heritable, thus they can be used as proxies for genetic closeness, she explained. The second method is based on chemical analysis, more specifically, strontium isotope analysis. Isotopes are different variants of a chemical element.
Strontium isotopes have different values in different parts of the world depending on the local bedrock. Through the gradual breaking down of the bedrock, a process known as weathering, strontium passes to the soil.
Then it is absorbed by plants and it enters the food chain. As humans eat plants, as well as the animals that have eaten plants, strontium is deposited on the human skeleton, substituting for calcium. Archaeologists measure strontium isotopes in the enamel of human teeth, as the only tissue in the human body which is almost fully inorganic and remains very well preserved even in very old skeletons, she said.
“Once the enamel is formed, it is a permanent record of the events that happened during our childhood, when tooth formation takes place,” she said.
“When we measure the strontium value in the human enamel, we get the local strontium signature in the area where this individual grew up, where this individual spent his childhood when his teeth were being formed.”
This value is then compared to the strontium value in the modern soil, water and plants at the area where the remains were found.
If they match then it can determined that the individual was born at that location. If they do not match, it means the individual spent his childhood in a different location and moved to the area later in life.
“There are many limitations to this approach in the sense that maybe the individual is not local to that area, but may be local to an area just two or three kilometers away,” she said.
“It also can’t determine how many times an individual may have moved in adulthood or accurately predict the area of origin of the individual.”
She is increasingly committed to integrating human skeletal data with archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological evidence as well as historical evidence in order to form a more well-rounded view of the past.
In April she will start a new collaborative project at the Cyprus Institute called ‘MetaMobility,’ which will study specifically human mobility in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East during Hellenistic and Roman times using a systematic meta-analysis of already published data, from different archaeological disciplines as well as historical textual sources.
“Although osteoarchaeology can identify past mobility, it doesn’t provide information about what instigated it, if there was scarcity of resources, warfare or economic motivations.
This is where historical and environmental archaeological data come into play. In addition, such complementary data can elucidate the impact of mobility to the natural environment, the economy and social structures.
This is why it is important to combine many lines of evidence so we can better understand the character, motivation and impact of mobility,” said Nikita.
Earlier in her career, she tested how accurate commonly used osteological methods for age-at-death prediction were, using a skeletal assemblage from the St Brides's Church crypts in London.
The names, date of birth and date of death of these individuals were documented and shared with her. At times studying this assemblage became difficult, she said.
“I could see which parents lost children, often multiple children. In the end I had to hide from the spreadsheets the data that were not directly relevant to my work.
I found it impossible not to empathize as I was holding the bones and I kept thinking, for example, that this was a mother who lost three children when they were just infants or this is a guy who lost both his parents when he was just a young child,” she said.
While working on her doctorate, she examined the skeletal remains of a people called the Garamantes, who lived in southwest Libya in the heart of the Sahara Desert from 900 BCE to approximately 400 CE, at a time when the desert was not as arid as today but was still a harsh environment.
Her research focused on skeletal markers of physiological stress and mobility to determine if their lives were any more difficult than those of other North African groups who occupied more favorable environments along the Mediterranean coast and the Nile River, as well as explore the degree of human mobility across the desert.
Historical records and material culture remains showed that the Garamantes thrived in the desert; they developed urban centers and engaged in trans-Sahara trade networks.
“We found that the Garamantes were an outlier group in North Africa, which means that despite the trade networks, there was limited gene flow between them and other North African groups” she said.
“But we also found that their daily life was not significantly harder than in the other groups. That is, the frequency of skeletal markers of mechanical or physiological stress was comparable to that seen in other groups that lived in less challenging environments.
So, our data matched historical and archaeological data that this group was able to cope efficiently with the environment.”
More recently her research has looked at what life would have been like for people in central Greece in Boeotia, where historical records show many battles took place during Hellenistic and Roman times.
With the data she garnered, she concluded that life in the Roman and post Roman period was harder than that during the classical period, as attested also historically. In addition, there was greater mobility during the Roman period—most likely due to the Pax Romana, which encouraged people to move around.
She is still absorbing the fact that she was among the nine people out of several hundred nominees to receive the Dan David Prize which awards nine prizes of $300,000 each year to outstanding early and mid-career scholars in the historical disciplines.
She intends to use her prize money to move her free access searchable Mediterranean and Middle East bioarchaeology bibliographic data base, Bi(bli)oArch, up a notch, to also include zooarchaeology and archaeobotany, and most importantly to develop open access databases compiling all published data for these disciplines in the region to allow for comparative studies.
She also plans on passing the prize forward by extending the contracts of her students at the post doctoral level so they develop their own projects, but also create public outreach resources.
By studying the human skeleton from many different regions across the Mediterranean and from prehistory to the 17th century CE, she said she has developed a “sense of connectivity” with the people who have lived in this region over the different time periods.
“Of course you see differences because of the environment, available technical means, and social organization.
But then you find a Neolithic period child with a healing arm fracture and you cannot not think of your own arm that ended up encased in plaster after falling off a tree some years ago.
Or you see a Roman period skeleton with several dental cavities and you think ‘I really should stop postponing my annual dentist appointment.’
When you look at a skeleton striped from the material culture or the phenotypic traits, such as hair and skin color, which at first make us look different, you see how similar we are across time and space,” said Nikita.