Built on Bones: 15,000 years of urban life and death
Brenna Hassett
Bloomsbury, £16.99
ISBN 978-1472922939
Review by: Lucia Marchini


More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the proportion is only set to increase. Cities, though, have long presented a range of hazards, such as infectious diseases and interpersonal violence. What traces of these are there in the archaeological record?

In this book – light in style, but not in facts – bioarchaeologist Brenna Hassett guides us through evidence from the Paleolithic through to the modern age, revealing the impact of a move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyles to early experimental settlements, and of injuries and nutritional deficiencies on our bones. Diet is, of course, key, and – putting aside the popular ‘Paleo Diet’ – Hassett considers how our ancestors domesticated both animals and plants to suit their needs, and the perils of eating polar bear liver.

Covering sites from across the globe, the book is broad in scope but contains many interesting details. An advertisement for King Charles II’s missing dog (1660), for instance, sheds light on our relationship with man’s best friend, while the rise in violent depictions in Moche art ties in with the growth of urban areas. With plenty of personal experiences setting the scene and entertaining footnotes, this is an enjoyable read, which brings bioarchaeology to a wider audience.