Category Archives: Physical Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology – Giving Voice to Victims

This month’s Scientific American highlights the forensic lab of Dr. Ann Helen Ross, whose lab specializes in identifying the remains, cause of death, or obtaining evidence from murder cases that boggle typical investigations.

Using what, to the lay person, might appear gruesome techniques (including removing soft tissue with harsh chemicals), Dr. Ross and her time help to provide evidence to investigators pertaining to unsolved murder cases (a disturbing number involving children).

To read more about the how forensic anthropology helps solve real life crime, read the short article at Scientific American blog or the longer version in October’s issue (requires a subscription).

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Pilgram Burials from the First Winter

Pilgram Burials from the First Winter.

A wonderful assessment of the tragedy suffered by the Mayflower Pilgrims and their first winter in America. If you have not yet read “Bones Don’t Lie,” a great blog on osteology, archaeology, and anthropology, it’s a must! Even those with the most lay knowledge will gain a greater appreciation of mortuary analysis.

The particular article looks at the burial practices of those living in Plymouth during the tragic winter of 1620-1621. Check it out: “Pilgrim Burials from the First Winter.”

Reconstructing the Face of Ancient Man

Jennifer Barber, a Masters student at the University of Dundee, is reconstructing the face of a young boy that lived in Norway more than 500 years ago. Using forensic arts, she is reconstructing the soft tissue and features of the boy’s face based on the original skeletal features using a series of skull x-rays.

“People are drawn to faces. The Viste Boy will probably attract attention in a future exhibition at the museum, bringing the story of Vistehola, the Viste Boy and the other people who lived there more alive for visitors.”

To learn more about this project, see the article in Science Daily.

Cooking a Nearly Two Million Year Old Practice

Recent excavations and analysis of the molars of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis suggest that human ancestors began cooking much earlier than originally thought. The introduction of culturally treating food (specifically cooking) directly correlates to smaller molar size in human beings (as thick enamel and wide chewing surfaces are no longer necessary).

Paleoanthropologists have suggested that the the decreasing size of molars in proto-humans suggests that our ancestors were cooking as early as two million years ago. The finding, however, is not without controversy as the connection with cooking also suggest other sophisticated tool use – specifically the control of fire.

“There isn’t a lot of good evidence for fire. That’s kind of controversial,” Organ said. “That’s one of the holes in this cooking hypothesis. If those species right then were cooking you should find evidence for hearths and fire pits.” (MSNBC)

These new findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If you do not have a subscription to this esteemed article, you can read more about it in this article of Scientific American or at MSNBC.

Chimpanzees Can Display Altruism

New recent on the behavior of chimpanzees demonstrates that our closest living relatives do in fact display altruistic behavior. Previously, primatologists believed that chimpanzees solely demonstrated behavior for self-serving ends. However, recent behavioral models have shown that the great apes take into account the feelings and needs of others in the group.

 “All studies with wild chimpanzees have amply documented that they share meat and other food abundantly, that they help one another in highly risky situations, like when facing predators or neighboring communities, and adopt needing orphans.” — Christopher Boesche to Discovery News.

These findings also shed an interesting light on the existence and development of altruistic behaviors amongst humans and the role it played in our evolutionary and social progression. To learn more about these findings and the future of these research models, see this article in Discovery News or at MSNBC.

 

Paleoanthropologists Uncover 20 Million Year Old Hominid Fossil

A team of Ugandan and French Paleoanthropologists have uncovered the remains of a 20 million year old Hominid Fossil in Uganda. The find is especially important as the skull is nearly complete – a rarity in fossilized remains.

“This is the first time that the complete skull of an ape of this age has been found. It is a highly important fossil,” Martin Pickford, a paleontologist from the College de France in Paris, told a news conference.

The skull was identified as belonging to a Ugandapithecus Major, an early relative to the great apes that inhabited the region. The early ape had a skull roughly the size of a chimpanzee, a highly intelligent primate. To read more about the find, read one of the articles at Discovery News, MSNBC, Daily Mail, or BBC News.

 

 

Archaeologists Battle to Study 9,000 Year Old Human Skeletons

Archaeologists at UC San Diego, La Jolla are currently battling for the privilege to study two human skeletons, more than 9,000 years old, recovered during a construction projector at the Chancellor’s home.

The conflict has brought to the head current controversial issues involving NAGPRA (Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act), which gives primary consideration to local tribes (regardless of biological or cultural affiliation with remains or artifacts). Handing the skeletons over to local tribes would permanently bar scientists from studying the remains.

“To give them away without study, would be like throwing the genetic crown jewels of the peopling of the Americas in the ocean,” said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who is among about a half dozen researchers who have unsuccessfully sought in recent months to sample or study the bones. “It would be a major loss for all, including Native Americans.”

Current representations of the 12-Tribes (the powerful tribal council in the region) has demanded repatriation of the bones immediately in accordance with current laws and practice. This case may serve as a turning point for archaeologists and scientists that have long contested the validity of NAGPRA.

Read the full article on Wired.