Medieval populations, society and climate: an interdisciplinary approach to the study of two skeletal assemblages from Bucharest and Braşov (Romania), 14th- 18th cent. AD
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The complex relationship between human societies and the environment has become a thriving field of research over the past three decades. The contribution of human osteoarchaeology to exploring this relationship, however, has been rather limited. Two unpublished late medieval skeletal assemblages unearthed in the historical centres of Bucharest and Braşov (located in southern and north-central Romania respectively) seemed ideal choices for investigating the impact of substantial climatic and environmental changes that took place worldwide between the 14th and the 18th century AD. As witnessed by medieval artistic and documentary sources, this unsettled climate was mirrored by human populations with social and political instability, epidemics, famine, but also through the rise of new cultural movements. The analysis of over 600 individuals (a minimum number of 421 individuals from Bucharest and 206 from Braşov) was carried out to: 1) Provide a thorough osteological analysis, and compare and test statistically the collected data to reconstruct demographic and pathological patterning; 2) Identify ‘skeletal environmental markers’, i.e. possible indicators of the effect of climatic shifts on the human body; 3) Cross-reference osteological, archaeological, historical and climatological data in order to present a robust biocultural assessment of the impact of environmental and historical events on the Romanian population during the Middle Ages. The identification of low life-expectancy, higher mortality rates for children and young adults and general high morbidity levels were in line with other studies on medieval populations. However, evidence for a high prevalence of specific physiological and psychological stress markers was observed in these two geographically, culturally and economically different urban communities. As a strong mortality- and morbidity-shaping factor, the detrimental effect of climate anomalies is one of the main explanations for such findings, and is supported by medieval historical sources and recent advances in Romanian climatological studies. Despite some limitations (i.e. incomplete chronological information for most of the burial contexts, minimal local historical sources, lack of funding for isotopic analyses, and time constraints), the results of the present study have offered a new perspective on the relationship between Romanian medieval populations and their living environment, and have shown the enormous potential of interdisciplinary bioarchaeological research in Romania.