Apply now

Biological Anthropology


Within the discipline of Anatomy there is an area devoted to the study of our prehistoric ancestors through their skeletal remains: biological anthropology.

Human skeletal remains provide an important source of evidence in rebuilding our prehistory. At JCU, Dr Kate Domett’s interest in skeletal analysis aims to shed light on the quality of life of prehistoric community’s in mainland Southeast Asia.

Health status is investigated through the analysis of parameters including measures of age-related mortality, growth, growth disturbances, osteoarthritis, trauma, dental health and other skeletal pathologies such as infectious disease. This type of information enables an excellent representation of the health status of a community to be obtained. For example, it may be possible to detect differences in access to nutrient sources based on the skeletal remains and their overall health. Differences in health between individuals may be evidence of a hierarchical social organisation whereby access to certain resources for certain individuals was restricted.

Many other cultural and environmental changes are also reflected in the epidemiology of the community’s health and presence of disease that can be investigated from their skeletal remains. Using a bioarchaeological approach this information is integrated with archaeological and ethnographic evidence for nutrition, pathogen load, physical environment and culture to provide a holistic interpretation of a prehistoric community.

This type of research involves participation in archaeological excavations and Dr Domett travels regularly to mainland Southeast Asia to excavate ancient cemeteries. Dr Domett also works more locally in Queensland and South Australia. Below is a summary of recent projects.

‘Resilience and Opportunity in ancient Southeast Asia: how did the people of ancient Southeast Asia interact with changing environments?’ began in December 2007 and continues today. Dr Domett and her colleagues aim to investigate the inter-relationships between the people and their environment between approximately 4500 and 1500 years ago within the Mun River Valley of lower northeast Thailand. They aim to obtain unprecedented levels of data and analysis about the cultural, environmental and biological variation over time and spatially within the village of Ban Non Wat and its surrounds. This region has been shown to be of significance as rich Bronze Age burials found here suggest a level of wealth and hierarchy in this society far beyond what has previously been assumed. This project involves collaborations between Dr Nigel Chang an archaeologist in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at JCU, Dr Bill Boyd (geographer) from Southern Cross University and the Thai Fine Arts Department.

The Earthwatch Institute is also involved with volunteers participating in archaeological excavations and surveys.

Nigel Chang:

‘History in their bones: A diachronic, bioarchaeological study of diet, mobility and social organization from Cambodian skeletal assemblages’. Our current project in Cambodia is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant (2009-2011).

Project Summary

Australia will further enhance its role as an innovator in the archaeology of SE Asia through this cross disciplinary, international collaboration on the mobility, health, age and diet in ancient Cambodia. Local collaborations will be expanded and academic and cultural relations with Cambodia will be reinforced and strengthened. This research will expand understanding of Cambodian history and underscore its pivotal role in mainland SE Asian archaeology. Australia's advancement of knowledge about Cambodia's rich cultural antiquity will be recognized worldwide by a global community acutely mindful of the losses to culture and heritage endured by Cambodia in the recent past.

This work is directed by archaeologist Dr Dougald O’Reilly, University of Sydney in collaboration with a range of specialists from around Australia and the world.

Dr Domett’s role is to excavate and analyse all the new human skeletal material that arises from this project. Recently excavations were undertaken at Phum Sophy, a prehistoric cemetery site in northwest Cambodia. This work augments excavations that were undertake at another pre-Angkorian site of Phum Snay in 2001-2003. Dr Domett’s particular objective is to document the pattern of health and disease in prehistoric times of this region and to determine if the health status of these people is indicative of a society undergoing significant cultural change, such as increased social complexity, technological sophistication and militarisation.

Dr Domett has been involved in a number of projects in collaboration with Dr Lynley Wallis, an archaeologist previously at Flinders University and now at the University of Queensland. In conjunction with particular Aboriginal groups such as the Woolgar Valley Aboriginal Corporation (QLD) and the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee (SA) we have rescued, analysed and reburied a small number of protohistoric individuals.


Dr Kate Domett, Senior Lecturer Anatomy

College of Medicine and Dentistry
Bebegu Yumba campus, Douglas
JCU Townsville
QLD 4811

Ph: +61 7 4781 5608

Research Opportunities

There are a number of methods in the literature that estimate stature (height) from fragmentary long bones (femur, humerus, etc). This project would aim to apply these methods to a dataset collected from pre-Angkorian skeletal samples from northwestern Cambodia. The results would then be discussed in relation to such things as health (did these people reach their genetic potential for height?) and migration (are there individuals who are particularly taller or shorter than the others that may have immigrated into the community?); and how does the height of this population compare with others from around Southeast Asia?

Enamel hypoplasia and stature: Do growth disturbances in childhood always lead to a reduced potential for growth in adulthood?

Enamel hypoplasia in teeth indicates a period of growth disturbance has occurred. The timing of this growth disturbance can be estimated by measuring the location of the defect on the teeth and comparing it to charts of dental development. Using data from Cambodia and Thailand, we aim to investigate if there are common periods of growth disturbance in prehistoric communities that might be related to particular key stressful social development periods such as weaning or transition to a more adult diet or even the time when a child begins to undertake more subsistence level tasks for the community. Does the time of the stressful event have a relationship with whether an individual’s genetic potential for stature is reached in adulthood? Who is more likely to ‘catch up’ in growth after a growth disturbance?

Students who complete high quality theses and wish to further their studies may be offered the opportunity to work on an archaeological excavation in Thailand at the end of the year.

Doctoral Students (joint enrolments between the College of Medicine and Dentistry and the College of Arts, Education and Society)

  • Ms Jennifer Newton, PhD topic: “Health, diet, and migration in the lead up to the development of the Angkorian civilization” (submitted 2013)
  • Ms Helen Cekalovic, PhD topic: “Health and Society in Prehistoric Thailand” (current)
  • Honours Students (enrolled through School of Arts and Social Sciences):
  • Ms Caitlin Evans “Osteoarthritis at Ban Non Wat, northeast Thailand: a comparison between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age (current, 2010)
  • Ms Alana Colbert “An Osteobiographical Study of Three Individuals at Ban Non Wat, Northeastern Thailand” (completed 2009)
  • Ms Rachel Mapson “A Dental Pathology Profile of Southeast Asia: a bioarchaeological case study from pre-Angkorian Phum Snay, Cambodia” (completed 2008)
  • Ms Jaime McHugh “Enamel Hypoplasia as an Indicator of Health in a Pre-Historic North-West Cambodian Site” (completed 2007)
  • Ms Rachel Shoichet “Osteoarthritis at Phum Snay (Iron Age, Northwest Cambodia), a Comparative Study” (completed 2006)
  • Ms Zoe Honan “The Caries of Phum Snay” (completed 2005)

Dr Domett edits an annual newsletter summarizing bioarchaeological projects from around Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific. Please email if you wish to be placed on the mailing list for this newsletter.

Moffat I, Wallis LA, Hounslow MW, Niland K, Domett K, and Trevorrow G. (in press, accepted April 2010). Geophysical prospection for Late Holocene burials in coastal environments: Possibilities and problems from a pilot study from South Australia. Geoarchaeology.

Cekalovic H, Domett K and Littleton J. (in press, accepted 2009) The History of Paleopathology in Australia. In Buikstra, J. and Roberts, CA, Schreiner SM. (eds) The History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York.

Domett KM, and O'Reilly DJW. (2009) Health in Pre-Angkorian Cambodia: a bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletal remains from Phum Snay. Asian Perspectives 48(1):56-78.

Tayles N, Domett K and Halcrow S. (2009). Can dental caries be interpreted as evidence of farming? The Asian experience. In: Koppe T, Meyer G, and Alt KW, editors. Comparative Dental Morphology. Basel: Karger. p 162-166.

Oxenham MF, Tilley L, Matsumura H, Nguyen LC, Nguyen KT, Nguyen KD, Domett K, and Huffer D. (2009) Paralysis and severe disability requiring intensive care in Neolithic Asia. Anthropological Science 117(2):107-112.

Oxenham MF, Matsumura H, Domett K, Nguyen KT, Nguyen KD, Nguyen LC, Huffer D, and Muller S. (2008) Health and the experience of childhood in Late Neolithic Viet Nam. Asian Perspectives 47(2):190-209.

Matsumura H, Oxenham MF, Dodo Y, Domett K, Nguyen KT, Nguyen LC, Nguyen KD, Huffer D, and Yamagata M (2008) Morphometric affinity of the late Neolithic human remains from Man Bac, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam: key skeletons with which to debate the 'two layer' hypothesis. Anthropological Science 116(2): 135-148.

Oxenham MF, Matsumura H, Domett K, Nguyen KT, Nguyen KD, Nguyen LC, Huffer D, and Muller S (2008) Childhood in late Neolithic Vietnam: Bio-mortuary insights into an ambiguous life stage. In K Bacvarov (ed.): Babies Reborn: Infant/Child burials in Pre- and Proto-History. Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques and Protohistoriques. Proceedings of the XV World Congress, Lisbon 2006. BAR International Series 1832. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 123-136.

Domett KM and Tayles N. (2007) Population Health from the Bronze to the Iron Age in the Mun River Valley, Northeast Thailand. In Ancient Health: Skeletal Indicators of Agricultural and Economic Intensification. M. Cohen and G. Kramer (eds). Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida: 286-299.

Tayles N, Halcrow S, and Domett K (2007) The People of Noen U-Loke. In The Origins of the Civilisation of Angkor Volume 2: The Excavation of Noen U-Loke and Non Muang Kao. C.F.W. Higham, A. Kijngam and S. Talbot (eds.). Bangkok: Thai Fine Arts Department: 243-304.

Domett KM and Tayles N. (2006) Human Biology from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Mun River valley of Northeast Thailand.  In Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia.  M.F. Oxenham and N. Tayles (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 220-240.

O'Reilly DJW, Domett K, and Pheng S. (2006) The Excavation of a Late Prehistoric Cemetery in Northwest Cambodia. Udaya 7:207-222.

Domett K and Tayles N (2006) Adult fracture patterns in prehistoric Thailand: a biocultural approach. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 16: 185-199.

Domett K, Wallis LA, Kynuna D, Kynuna A and Smith H (2006) Late Holocene human remains from northwest Queensland, Australia: archaeology and palaeopathology. Archaeology in Oceania 41(1): 25-36.

Domett KM. (2004). The People of Ban Lum Khao. In: Higham CFW, and Thosarat R, editors. The Origins of the Civilization of Angkor Volume I: The Excavation of Ban Lum Khao. Bangkok: The Thai Fine Arts Department. p 113-151.

O'Reilly DJW, Chanthourn T, and Domett K. ( 2004). A preliminary report on the excavation of an Iron Age Cemetery at Phum Snay, Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia, 2003. Udaya Journal 5:219-225.

Domett, K.M. (2001) Health in Late Prehistoric Thailand. B.A.R International Series No. 946. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Nelsen K, Tayles N, and Domett K. (2001). Missing lateral incisors in Iron Age Southeast Asians as possible indicators of dental agenesis. Archives of Oral Biology 46:963-971.

Tayles, N., Domett, K.M., and Pauk, P. (2001) Bronze Age Myanmar (Burma): a report on the people from the cemetery of Nyaunggan, Upper Myanmar. Antiquity 75(288): 273-278.

Pautreau, J-P., U Pauk Pauk, and Domett, K. (2001) Le cimetière de Hnaw Khan. Mahlaing (Mandalay). Aseanie 8: 73-102.

Tayles, N., Domett, K.M., and Nelsen, K. (2000) Agriculture and dental caries? The case of rice in prehistoric Southeast Asia. World Archaeology 32(1): 68-83. [Times cited: 15]

Tayles N, Domett K, and Hunt V. (1998). The People of Nong Nor. In: Higham CFW, and Thosarat R, editors. The Excavation of Nong Nor: A prehistoric site in central Thailand. Dunedin: Department of Anthropology, University of Otago. p 321-368.