Theory and histological methods

Christian Crowder, Deborrah C. Pinto, Janna M. Andronowski, Victoria M. Dominguez

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter explores the theoretical and scientific foundations that guide current interpretations in bone biology within anthropology. Theory development involving the principles of bone physiology occurs primarily in the clinical setting, and, as such, the field of forensic anthropology appears to lack a solid theoretical foundation in bone histology. Despite this assumption, the application of bone biology theory in anthropology falls within the interpretive and methodological theory categories. The role of theory in bone biology and how it influences anthropological methods are discussed according to M.B. Schiffer's (1988, The structure of archaeological theory. American Antiquity, 53(3), 461-485) high-level, middle-range, and low-level hierarchical model and more recent interpretations by Boyd and Boyd (Chapter 1, this volume). Appreciating the evolutionary processes that affect human variation requires a thorough understanding of the governing principles within high-level foundational theory. Foundational theory, as it relates to bone biology, focuses on the evolutionary frameworks that form the theoretical basis of bone biology and inform biological processes, including bone modeling and remodeling, skeletal growth, and age-associated deterioration. However, the majority of research within anthropology lies within the interpretive and methodological theory categories. A discussion of historical theory development regarding bone adaptation and mechanics is presented, focusing on theories proposed by J. Wolff (1986, The Law of Bone Remodeling. Springer, Berlin (translated from the original German publication 1892)), W. Roux (1881, Der zuchtende Kampf der Teile, oder die "Teilauslese" im Organismus (Theorie der "funktionellen Anpassung"). Wilhelm Engelmann, Leipzig), and C. Bernard (1865, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. Henry Schuman, Inc., New York (Dover edition 1957; originally published in 1865; first English translation by Henry Copley Greene, published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1927)). These early concepts of bone biology focused on explaining bone adaptation in response to mechanical loading and were used to predict changes in bone architecture, yet failed to explain how these changes occur. Influential interpretive theories were later introduced, including H.M. Frost's (1983, The skeletal intermediary organization. Metabolic Bone Disease and Related Research, 4(5), 281-290) mechanostat theory. Frost's theory, based on the immensity of strain that results from mechanical loading, describes the mechanical controls of modeling, remodeling, and bone mass during growth. Later, the Utah paradigm of skeletal physiology introduced a shift from the former paradigm of skeletal physiology, suggesting that effector cells that determine bone health are controlled by nonmechanical agents. More recent bone biology studies have attempted to identify the specific mechanisms that initiate and guide bone modeling and remodeling and implement modern interpretive theories including the osteocyte inhibitor theory, the principle of cellular accommodation theory, and the shear resistance-priority hypothesis. In contrast, all histological analyses employed by forensic anthropologists can be viewed as contributing to low-level methodological theory development. Two main research areas are explored: estimating age at death and differentiating human from nonhuman bone. A discussion of early histological age estimation methods is provided, focusing on techniques developed by E.R. Kerley (1965, The microscopic determination of age in human bone. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 23, 149-164) and S.D. Stout (1986, The use of bone histomorphometry in skeletal identification: The case of Francisco Pizarro. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 31(1), 296-300). Examining the differences in human and nonhuman bones employs middle-range theory, namely, growth and development, relating it to high-level theory on the evolution of species and phylogenetic relationships. Overall, the goals of this chapter are (1) to provide a template for understanding the use of theory in forensic anthropology for histological research and analyses and (2) to provide a framework for guiding data interpretation that encourages a better understanding of bone biology. This chapter demonstrates that researchers adhere to varying theoretical models regarding the factors governing bone histology and suggests that inferences from results should be applied to make population-level interpretations to bridge empirical data and theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationForensic Anthropology
Subtitle of host publicationTheoretical Framework and Scientific Basis
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781119226529
ISBN (Print)9781119226383
StatePublished - Jan 24 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Bone biology
  • Bone histology
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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