Category: Bioarchaeology

Bones with Stingers

biological-anthropology-bs-2-hIf your still in high school with a interest in anthropology you should consider going to Appalachian State’s Forensic Anthropology Camp. I know, because I did

Because I was a late bloomer and didn’t discover my love for anthropology until my junior year, I was actually one of the oldest kid there in the summer of 2016. Just a few months before I would go to school at ISU. I also had to do the June camp that year, because if i went to the July camp I would have been to old to even apply. But luckily, I found the camp opportunity just in time to apply and participate just before I started college. 

APP State

When my mom and I first got there I knew I was going to have a good time. The campus was beautiful and the scenery was like nothing Illinois could offer. You could tell the people where as interested in anthropology as I was. And could actually have a conversation about something like balanced polymorphism and its correlation with natural selective pressures for the heterozygote of sickle cell anemia in parts of the world like Central Africa. And no one would bat an eye.

Throughout the week I worked with other campers, Counselors(grad students at the school), and the one and only Dr. Schung. A well know bioarchaeologists and professor at App State. And we got to work with real human skeletons and learn basic human osteology, like sex age ancestry, and stature. Also skeletal evidence for trauma, starvation, and infectious diseases. Once we learned all these techniques to read bones and someones life we where split up into groups and each given a case to solve and reconstruct the life and manner of death from our skeletal remains. And then present it to the camp and see how much we got right.


From the specific case we got we where able to tell our suspect was male. From the robustness of his skull and the shape and angle of his pelvis. His age based on his dentition, all his epiphyseal fused and advanced osteoporosis  we determined he was sixty plus years old. Based on his facial features he was of European dissent. And that he stood around five feet eight inches. Based on the healed injures like his Salter Harris Type 1 Fracture on his left Tibia, and the amount of muscle markings on his long bones suggested he lived a very active lifestyle. He also had DISH on his spine and some ribs which can happen at old age. The lack of trauma on his body and his old age we assumed he died of natural causes. We presented our findings to the camp and at the end like everyone else after we presented got to know the true identity of there individual. And we where right on everything except cause of death. He actually died of cancer which was present in the ribs but was hard to distinguish between the Dish which he also had. 

The FAKE remains we found.

On the last day ,which was the most eventful day for me, we went into the woods(just pick a direction) and was tasked with finding FAKE skeletal remains underground. We split up into groups again and was assigned a general area where the remains would be. one spot looked suspicious for it was sagging a bit as if the soil has been turned awhile ago. This is where we learned to the surveying and excavation techniques. Which weren’t that much different from the techniques I learned at camp CAA the year before. The biggest difference was the rate of digging. I was internally having a meltdown when I saw people thrust their shovel or trowel inches deep. Almost like they were stabbing the ground. This was very different form my time at CAA where the process was slow only going centimeters deep. Looking for the tiniest pieces of flint or pottery. I asked one of the councilors about this and she agreed, but in a forensic setting time was sometimes not an ally so the rate of digging was faster. I did go down once people actually started hitting bone and realized they should slow down a bit.

When everyone was done digging up there skeletons groups took turns looking at what other groups had found. But apparently someone had disturbed a wasp nest(yellow jacket) and when I turned to leave I felt an extreme pinching in my leg and when a look down a see a wasp jabbing its stinger in my leg! I’m not allergic but instantly I knew this would wreck the rest of my day. I told one of the councilers and it turned out i wasn’t the only one and we all left for the nearby clinic. Also luckily no one was allergic and so nobody needed any care. So once the professor made all the calls the the parents to let them know we left the clinic the professor now driving us and me riding shotgun. Luckily I made this crap situation into a positive. I had the rare opportunity to talk to her and ask her questions and also tell her about the CAA camp which ironically she brought up since I went there the summer before!

So the day wasn’t a total loss. And If anyone is serious about physical anthropology then you should consider this camp. It has probably the best hands on experience opportunity for high school students using real bones. You get to be around people your own age with the same interests. And the grad students and professor have a wealth of knowledge, With the grad students having immeasurable knowledge on what it’s like to be a anthropology student and what to plan for for your specific interests in the department.

Information: – For more details on this unique camp.


You Are What You Eat

hamburger-headThe picture might be an exaggeration. The isotopes in your body aren’t!

The study of isotopes from the departments of chemistry and geology have, in recent decades, helped archaeologists and anthropologists alike answer questions. The answers most sought after when using isotope analysis are about past civilizations and there past diets, mobility, and trade. And can get further knowledge about past peoples and the environment they lived and culture.

Most people who think of isotope analysis think of absolute dating, which are radioactive isotopes ,like carbon-14, which decay in predictable “half-lives” to something more stable. This can be used, particularly C-14 in archaeology, to date certain items like artifacts, strata, and fossils. Absolute dating was actually used to determine the age of the Earth!

But few are familiar with “stable” isotopes. Which aren’t radioactive and so don’t go under radioactive decay over time. Because of this we can find artifacts and plants and animals skeletons with the same isotopic value from when they where alive. The most common elements used are Carbon(C-13), Nitrogen(N-15), Oxygen(O-18), and Strontium(Sr-87,Sr-86). These stable isotopes can then be used to study artifacts like ceramics, metals. soft tissue, bone, teeth, plants and soil. And the reason for the funny title is isotope values in organisms are a reflection of the there geographic location and diets. So, you literally are what you eat!

Types of Isotope Use

Isotopes to Study the Environment 

Learning about the past environments of past peoples can help explain the environmental factors they faced. Like agriculture, trade, and settled or nomadic lifestyles. An example would be people who lived in arid environments have enriched N-15 values while people who lived in mild environment have a low N-15 value.

Isotopes and Diet

This method provides a very direct approach to discovering the diets of past people and civilizations. Through the use of carbon and nitrogen isotopes it can determine terrestrial or marine consumption and the different plant life.

Isotopes to Study Mobility

Isotopes Strontium and oxygen can be used to study the travel of people, animals and artifacts like ceramics. can be used to study the trade among past civilizations and peoples migration from different geographical locations for they will have different isotopic values.

Examples in the Field

The Very English Eater

arrowpointboy20composite20sharpIn The Jamestown Rediscovery Project in 2005 they where able to discover a early inhabitant of the town near James Fort. From the bones he was a young European man that stood about 5ft 8in. And when they brought his remains to to Smithsonian Institution they did a isotopic analysis using C-13. This information can be valuable when studying colonial remains for they can help tell there original origins and how long they have stayed in America. Because maize have a richer source of C-13 compared to the other plant life in Europe which are barley, wheat, and rye. And over time as a colonial eats more local foods and plant life changing there nutrition that there body transports which changes over time there bones which reflect a diet with more C-13. But the Isotope analysis of the young man reflects that he had a low C-13 diet which reflects that he had no local food in his diet and that he most likely died shortly after arriving in Jamestown around 1607.

What did Egyptians Eat?   

Mummy of a Middle Class Egyptian Woman.

In Katheryn Emery’s blog Bones Don’t Lie she talks about the Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope systematics and whether depictions of Egyptian art really show how they lived. And based on the research gathered using human hair, enamel, and bones from a sample of 43 individuals from the Egyptian middle class. And based on the isotopic analysis using Strontium they consumed all local crops and meats. which makes sense since they where able to take advantage of the Nile river and delta. Which means they didn’t need to import food resources from other civilizations. Also based on the isotope analysis the article inferred that the Egyptian middle class had a ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. Which meant they primarily ate fruits and vegetables but also byproducts of animals like milk and cheese. Meat consumption was between 20% to a extreme of 50% of there diet. But this is still low compared to modern day where meat is around 65% of our diet. So they mostly kept to there greens.

Books and websites:

Written in Bone by Sally M. Walker – book about the excavation of Colonial James Town and Maryland. – Katheryn Emery’s blog – a good site about isotope analysis. Hopefully clears up anything that was confusing. I’m not the best at Chemistry.











Identity through Art and Science

Facial reconstruction

What is it:

According to Caroline Wilkinson it is “the science of art building the face onto the skull for the purpose of individual identification.” Forensic reconstruction is a very complicated process, and the knowledge of what needs to be known is quite extensive. The education they need to know to be successful in being the most accurate is forensic science, anthropology, anatomy, and osteology. Also, patience and an artist hand won’t hurt either. And even though facial reconstruction is not an extension of physical anthropology, physical anthropologists have contributed or even incorporated methods and technique for the field. And over the years with better scientific methods developed has shifted from being an art with some science, to being more calculative, relying on science to get better estimates, relying less and less on artistic intuition. And contemporary forensic reconstruction have proved successful in getting an identity from unknown remains.


Popular British anthropologist Dr. Wilkinson. Her work on Robert the Bruce in background.

Facial reconstruction is used primarily in two fields of anthropology; forensic and archaeology. In forensics, it is usually used as a last resort to get a possible identification from the remains of a homicide, mass disaster, or genocide. In archaeology, it can be used when there are historic or ancient remains at their dig site. And from the skeletal, or mummified remains can make a face of the past. Facial reconstruction has become popular in museums and to the public because it can bring a more intimate attachment to the people of the past. Also with the current known knowledge of our evolutionary history the artist/scientist have been able to use similar technique and methods to reconstruct early humans and ancient hominins.

Methods and reconstruction:

Methods have changed over the years relying more on data and technology rather than artistic skill.

The first method used began in the nineteenth century by using cadavers to test the tissue depths by measuring how far the needle will go into the tissue. This was later viewed as unreliable because of the lack of fluid in the face changes the depth of tissue during decomposition, among other factors from measuring or decomposition.

The most recent and scientifically more reliable method for measuring the tissue depths is the Manchester method. By using modern technology such as CT scan or an MRI. They can get accurate data of tissue depths by using living individuals.

There are three types of facial reconstruction:

(a) 2D reconstruction. (b) 3D reconstruction, and (c) computerized reconstruction.

Three-dimensional reconstruction:


Uses clay or wax to rebuild face over the skull itself or a cast. A new way of building the cast is to use a 3D printer, which will do less harm to the actual skull. Then there are tissue-depth markers or rubber pegs placed on various places of the cast. Then layers are placed that are shaped much like tissues on the cast and are evened out around the rubber pegs. The last steps are hair and other accessories like jewelry or glasses. Still, there are reconstruction work that is guesswork. Like color of hair, skin tone, and shape of ears. Unless there are still some hair or tissue samples not badly decomposed to help the processes. This is last resort to get an identification. Mostly because it is time and labor intensive. Used to trigger a response of someone who see it and may have information.

Tw0-dimenstional facial reconstruction:


Can also be referred to as a police sketch. Similar to the 3D model they will put tissue-depth markers and then take a photograph or x-ray of the skull or cast. Then draw or trace specific features over the photograph or x-ray. This method is becoming obsolete with the advancement of computer programs for facial reconstruction first developed in the 90s.

Computerized reconstruction:


Computer software designed with programs for facial reconstruction brought in a new era for the field. Still implements the methods for tissue-depth used for 3D reconstruction. But unlike the 3D model it is quicker and fast producing. His doesn’t make it more accurate or exact than the 3D model, just an enhanced version to make quick changes and to make different versions quicker. Like Hair styles or accessories. But like the 3D model,  any evidence recovered like hair or tissue will make a better profile.

Real life Examples:

Bun Chee Nyhuis’s facial reconstruction printed in the newspaper.

A skull and 40 or so bones were found at a Boy Scout camp in Missouri. Along with some hair, and jeans. Based on the evidence recovered and help from a Forensic anthropologist (Dr. Michael Charney) they were able to say the remains belonged to a five foot, one hundred and twenty pound Asian women in her mid-twenties who had given birth to at least two children. Even with all this evidence they were still not able to identify the remains. So, as their last option they decided to reconstruct the face in hopes some will recognize her. After the reconstruction was given to various media outlets friends of her were able to identify her as Bun Chee Nyhuis. And through further investigation where able to charge and put her husband away for murder.

Elisabeth Daynes working on the face of a Paranthropus boisei.

Paleoartist Elisabeth Daynes is a French sculptor with a twenty plus year career now in human evolution. She has done hyper-realistic reconstructions of hominins from Lucy to archaic humans. She has gained global recognition for her work and her reconstructions are in natural history museums around the world. Her work focuses heavily on the skull as it is has unique features for every hominin. She also collaborates heavily on scientists like paleoanthropologists, forensic anthropologists, biologists and geneticist. As well as reads scientific literature for most she can do to reconstruct our ancestors.

if your interested in watching the process, view these videos

good example of how they work closely with other anthropologists and historians to get  better reconstructions of historical remains.

Watch “Richard III Revealed” on Netflix, and watch the recovery and facial reconstruction of a King by Dr. Wilkinson.

The case of Bun Chee Nyhuis made by Forensic Files. Can find on YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

Books and websites:

The Bone Detectives by Donna M. Jackson- a short, but very informative book about forensic and physical anthropology.

Flesh and Bone by Myriam Nafte- a great and inexpensive book that real anthropologist use!












First blog post

First blog post

Anthropology. What? anty-banner

Most people will go through life without understanding anthology, or even talk to an anthropologist. So, people can have a vague idea what anthropology is. Some will automatically think Indiana Jones, when he was an archaeologist and a bad one at that. Though I do like the hat. Or say yeah, I like bugs to, hearing entomology instead of Anthropology. For those and many other reasons I decided to write this blog post about what Anthropology is and its origins.


Around the time explores made transcontinental travels they made amazing discoveries in new lands that help us further understand our world in fields like natural history, geology, and biology. But when the explorers got to “new” lands they encountered people as well. People that looked, talked, and dressed very differently from there way in western society. And in an age of great discovery and further understanding Europeans tried to explain this, what was to them, phenomenon. And slowly but surely the discoplone Anthropology was born in the 19th century. Even when you look at googles “use over time for: anthropology” graph the word catapults from 1850’s to modern day.

Frank Foas. Considered the “Father of American Anthropology.”

Anthropology in America will eventually be known as the study of humankind, viewed at all perspectives of people at all times. American anthropology has become so specialized, we can also look at ourselves in many different but connected ways, it has been divided into four sub-fields. The four sub-fields in America are Cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and physical(biological) anthropology.

Margaret Mead. A popular Cultural Anthropologist. With a mother in the Admiralty Island

Cultural Anthropologists studies living cultures and will often spend long trips with cultural groups to gain more intimate perspective of these cultures. Archaeologists are like Cultural Anthropologists, but study the past cultures using material culture or more known artifacts. Linguists study language, its structure, evolution, and social and cultural context for language. Finally, physical anthropologists study the human evolution and variation, both past and present.

Even through anthropology is very diverse it is also a studying field that holistic as well. Unlike other disciplines, anthropologists study humans using a biocultural approach. Acknowledging the fact that there is a intercorrelation between culture and biology using scientific study.

Louis and Mary Leaky. Famous Paleoanthropologists in East Africa (successfully) looking for hominid fossils.

Now I will only be blogging about Physical Anthropology and its fields. If you think looking at one fourth of the sub-fields will be a light read, then you’re wrong. What makes physical anthropology interesting is its relationship with the other sub-fields and that it is science and social science. Also, its close ties to other disciplines like biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, and many other fields and specialties. So, I hope you enjoy my topics but more so the world that is Physical Anthropology.