March 24, 2016

8 Amazing Anthropologists Advancing Science Outreach

Anthropology is not known as a discipline with key public figures as well-known as Bill Nye or Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Chances are, the anthropologist most people have heard of is Margaret Mead, who was well-known for her research, museum work, policy creation, and public outreach in the first half of the 20th century. But I suspect that, looking back, 2016 will be seen as a watershed year for women anthropologists using blogs and media outlets to bring anthropology back into the public eye the way Mead did. In alphabetical order, here are the eight anthropologists that I read on a regular basis for their insights into humanity, past and present:

1. Krystal D’Costa writes the blog Anthropology in Practice for Scientific American, primarily showing our own society through the lens of a cultural researcher. Many of her posts tackle 21st century technology issues, such as “We’ve Modified Our Behavior So We Can Text and Walk,” but her four-part series on rice and beans showcases what food means in different contexts, and herdeconstruction of the ubiquitous red Solo cup is among my favorite pieces of online writing ever.

2. Dr. Holly Dunsworth (University of Rhode Island) is a biological anthropologist who teaches and researches human origins and evolution, and she’s just launched her blog Origins on the newSapiens platform, run by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Just three posts in, and Dunsworth is already a pro at writing eye-catching headlines like, “Surprise! Semen Is Required!

3. Dr. Siân Halcrow (University of Otago) is a bioarchaeologist who works in Southeast Asia and has started a blog called The Bioarchaeology of Childhood. Here, Halcrow covers the latest research on children in the past, summarizing articles and news stories from around the world. One piece that sticks out for me is Halcrow’s volley into the always contentious discussion of infanticide in antiquity, which she writes about in “Infanticide in the Archaeological Record: Sense or Sensationalism?” She also writes about her own research, as well as her challenges and successes with bringing her own children into the field for research, as in “ My Work with Babies – Today and in Prehistory.” Halcrow’s candor in writing about work-life balance as an academic and a mother makes her blog an important read for early-career anthropologists like me.

4. Dr. Carie Hersh (Northeastern University) also recently launched a blog called Relevanth, where she tries to make anthropological ideas and knowledge relevant to day-to-day life. Dipping primarily into linguistics and cultural anthropology, Hersh’s recent posts have tackled differences between regional ways of talking (“Your Accent Is We-ahd“) and similarities between “The Hidden Cultural Values of Massholes and Y’all Qaeda.”

5. Dr. Rosemary Joyce (University of California, Berkeley) writes two blogs: one at Psychology Today called What Makes Us Human, and another called Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Joyce is an archaeologist who has led the field of archaeology in understanding gender, sex, sexuality, and inequality from both artifacts and graves. Her blogging is sometimes reflective (“Grand Challenges for the Archaeology of Gender and Sexuality“) and sometimes political (“Aztec Marriage: a Lesson for Chief Justice Roberts“), but always fascinating.

6. Dr. Barbara King (College of William & Mary) contributes to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. Through this platform, Dr. King, a biological anthropologist who has worked for years with primates, writes thought-provoking pieces about animal cognition, animal rights, climate change, evolution, and current political touchstones. Among my favorite of her pieces are “What Is the Psychic Toll of Gun Violence?“, “Should a Monkey Own a Copyright?“, and “Famous Gorilla ‘Gives’ a Climate Change Speech.”

7. Katy Meyers Emery (Michigan State University) is a PhD candidate with a specialty in bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology. For several years, she has written Bones Don’t Lie, a blog about the dead and what their bodies and graves can tell us about life in the past. Meyers Emery posts a lot of summaries of breaking research, and also discusses her own research and academic activities in the field of bioarchaeology. I love her ongoing series called “Morbid Terminology,” where she demystifies jargon. The latest in the series, “New Morbid Terminology: Phossy Jaw, the Occupational Disease of Matchstick Makers” is particularly fascinating. She and I have even collaborated a few times on articles about blogging in bioarchaeology.

8. Dr. Jennifer Raff (University of Kansas) is both an anthropologist and a geneticist. She writes a blog called Violent Metaphors about her research, evolution in general, and her teaching (see, “Why There Are Still Monkeys: Lessons Learned from Teaching Evolution in Kansas“). Raff alsocontributes articles to the Huffington Post about vaccines and the anti-vax movement (see “Fighting the Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric with Science“), the application of new information in genetics, and scientific literacy.

This is not a comprehensive list by any means, and there are plenty more anthro bloggers out there doing excellent work whom you can find with a quick google search.

Do check out one or more of the above blogs, though, if you’re looking for new takes on anthropology. It’s important to click through, read, and share anthropology blogs because, if my own experience is a reflection of the current state of academia, most of these anthropologists get few direct benefits for blogging. It is often seen as a distraction from the “real” work of publishing research articles — and yet, many scholars choose to advance public outreach of anthropology anyway, in addition to their research and teaching obligations.

Give ‘em a read and find out more about how anthropology is relevant to the present as well as the past.

This post is syndicated from my blog at Forbes. By syndicating content, I'll be able to bring you stories to read without ads and without dealing with the Forbes ad-blocker-blocker. Not all content will be syndicated, and there is at least a week delay between the original post and the syndicated one. Do click through the link in the first sentence, though, to keep up to date on the latest news items in the field of bioarchaeology -- you'll read it first on my Forbes blog.

March 19, 2016

What I Wrote This Month @Mental_Floss - Roman Skeletons, Roman Poo, and Badgers!

Since I've been posting collections of my Forbes work on a monthly basis, I figured I would post my mental_floss writing as well.  Here are the three things that have come out so far...

  • 14 March -- 6 Practical Ways the Romans Used Human Urine and Feces in Daily Life.  Who doesn't like Roman pee and poo? This was fun to write, as I got to talk to two awesome historians (Sarah Bond and Miko Flohr) about their research into the topic. I particularly love the poo-emoji-plus-Colosseum that the graphics folks cooked up.  It makes me laugh.
  • 17 March -- 6 Archaeological Finds Made by Badgers.  I actually set out to find more examples of badger-archaeology, but this is all I came across.  Now it looks like I am obsessed with listicles and the number 6, but it's honestly a coincidence.  This was also fun to write, mostly because I got to make a "honey badger" reference.
Mental_floss isn't terribly consistent yet about how they classify my pieces, but if you click here, you should be able to see my stories that are classified correctly.

So for those of you who hate Forbes' adblocker-blocker and find it hard to read my stuff there, please do check out the pieces I'm writing for mental_floss, which isn't as obnoxious with ads.  As always, please share widely if you like these articles and want me to write more.  If you have suggestions for mental_floss pieces I could write (explainers, listicles, and "today I learned..." type pieces work best there), do let me know!

March 15, 2016

My Personal Bioarch Wayback Machine

Sometimes, I have occasion to sift through my old files -- digital, mind you; I haven't had paper files in years -- to see what I thought one, five, even twenty years ago.  Since I'm starting the roughly year-long process of preparing my tenure packet, I dipped into some of my early files when my interest in bioarchaeology was coalescing.

Here's the penultimate paragraph from the statement of purpose that I submitted to East Carolina University in 1999, in my application for admission to their MA program:

I have several specific goals for my graduate education. First, I would like to take classes in human anatomy and evolution, both of which I feel provide a basis for the study of bioarchaeology. Second, I hope that I will be able to participate in archaeological digs involving human remains so that I can learn correct excavation, recording, and documentation procedures involved in the treatment of these delicate archaeological artifacts. Third, I hope to accomplish several research goals. My immediate research goals are in the realms of biodistance and palaeopathology. I would like to look at the effects of the conquests of the Roman Empire on other native European populations, specifically in regard to the new diseases that Roman soldiers brought and the non-metric traits they passed down by procreating with the people they subjugated. Another research goal involves computer imaging. I would like to examine the benefits of three-dimensional graphics of specimens as a supplement to a textbook, as a conservation technique, or as a way to share information with bioarchaeologists and anatomists around the world. Finally, my long-range goal for my graduate education is to become a professor. I often think about the curriculum I would use if I were teaching osteology and about how to integrate new and developing technology to the study of bioarchaeology. For instance, I collaborated with my fiancé to produce a computer program that would quiz me on attributes of bones in order to prepare me for weekly bone quizzes for my osteology class at UVa. Taken to the next level, this program could include scanned photographs or even 3-D imaging of anything from a tooth to a tibia suffering from periosteal inflammation, with the goal that a student can learn to identify fragments and conditions of bone that might not be available in the teaching collection. Most of all, however, I would enjoy doing research as a professor and contributing to the growing body of literature in bioarchaeology.
How'd I do 15 years on?  First -- take a bunch of interesting classes: Check.  Second -- participate in digs overseas (even though it turns out I'm not great at field archaeology): Check.  Third -- do research on the Romans involving biodistance and palaeopathology: Check. Fourth -- become a professor: Check.

What delights me most about this statement, though, is that I proposed 3D imaging of pathological human remains as a teaching tool, and as a way to make human skeletons available to people without access to them.  This was pretty far-reaching in 1999.  I mean, there were 3D scanners and printers -- and they cost a ton of money -- but they weren't in widespread use in social science or digital humanities because, well, digital humanities didn't really exist yet. To put into starker perspective, in 1999, I still had dial-up internet. There was no such thing as Craigslist (my husband and I bought a car through an ad in Usenet!). It would be another couple years until I got a cell phone.  When we were shopping for houses that year, my husband and I borrowed a digital camera, because it was expensive and neither of us had one. And it could only store like two dozen pictures.

We now have sites like Digitised Diseases, which was officially launched in 2013, and I'm just now working with students to create more digital teaching resources with our 3D scanners and printers. This recent uptick in the democratization of information access, though, comes directly out of the open access movement, which I was actually aware of -- in its open source programming form -- two decades ago.

Oof, and now I feel old.

March 3, 2016

Bone-Eating Foot Fungus Found in Medieval Cemetery

In an unassuming cemetery in Estremoz, southern Portugal, archaeologists found over 100 burials dating to the 13th to 15th centuries AD. One middle-aged man, however, had a hole in his head and clear evidence of disease in his left foot. Their diagnosis? A foot fungus that has never been seen in Medieval Europe before.

Ankylosis of the left calcaneous and cuboid (3D imaging available at (A) Photography showing external foci (black arrow). (B) Radiograph showing multiple foci (black arrows) and the lines (white arrow) between the calcaneus and cuboid. (Image used with kind permission of Ana Curto.)
Ankylosis of the left calcaneus and cuboid (3D imaging available here). (A) Photography showing external foci (black arrow). (B) Radiograph showing multiple foci (black arrows) and the lines (white arrow) between the calcaneus and cuboid. (Image used with kind permission of Ana Curto.)
The skeleton in question was studied by biological anthropologists Ana Curto and Teresa Fernandes, who report their findings in the latest issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology. The man’s left heel and ankle bones were fused together, and the heel bone also has a worm-eaten appearance, with round holes found throughout. All five of the metatarsals in his left midfoot show evidence of destruction and irregular healing. His left lower leg also seems to have been compromised by the same disease. Curiously, the right foot is totally normal.

Based on these ancient “symptoms,” Curto and Fernandes attempted a differential diagnosis, excluding some diseases and finally settling on one. They first ruled out diseases present since birth, narrowing their focus to diseases that can be acquired during life. The pattern of bone lesions doesn’t match well with leprosy or cancer, both of which also involve destruction of bone. Tuberculosis and osteomyelitis (infection of the bone marrow) also don’t match well, but the anthropologists could not definitively exclude those causes.

Left: Patient with Madura foot in King Saud Medical Complex, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Image by Wikimedia Commons user Halfalah, used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.) Right: Madura foot x-ray of patient at King Saud Medical Complex, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Image by Wikimedia Commons user Halfalah, used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.)
Rather, the one-sided foot symptoms match best with maduromycosis, more commonly known as Madura foot after the place in India where it was first medically reported in the mid-19th century. Madura foot is caused by a fungus that lives in soil, so is very common among barefoot agricultural workers. In modern cases, a person cuts their foot, and the fungus gets in and produces colonies. After a long but painless incubation period, the fungus spreads through the skin and into the bone, causing widespread destruction. In ancient times, Madura foot was hard to get rid of, and amputation was likely the only cure.

What’s odd about Madura foot in this Medieval Portuguese cemetery, though, is that the disease is usually confined to between 30°N and 15°S latitudes, or further south than Estremoz. Can Madura foot make it up to Portugal, and if so, how?

Curto and Fernandes think that the Medieval Climatic Anomaly of 1000-1400 AD may be to blame. During that time, Europe was warmer and drier than during the Little Ice Age, meaning the pathogen that causes Madura foot could theoretically have survived in the soil of southern Portugal. However, the researchers can’t rule out the possibility that this man got infected somewhere else — such as the Mediterranean, or even the Middle East or Africa — and came to Portugal afterwards.
Left: Oval shaped trauma (approximately 31 × 21 mm) at the right parietal of a middle-aged man from Estremoz, Medieval Portugal. Probable trepanation. (Image used with kind permission of Ana Curto.) Right: Medieval (13th century) surgeon
trepanning. (Image by Wellcome Images, a website operated by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the UK. Used under a CC-BY license.)

The other odd thing about this man’s skeleton is the hole in his head. It’s oval in shape, and right in the middle of the side of the cranial vault. Remodeling on the margins of the hole means he survived the wound and had started healing. Since there are no radiating lines, it isn’t a fracture, and it’s unlikely to be a cancer either. Curto and Fernandes are confident it is evidence of trepanation, or skull surgery. Someone would have scraped his cranial bone in a back-and-forth manner until the bone wore out, causing a hole.

Trepanation was practiced in ancient times — and is still practiced in places today — as a way to cure disease, release evil spirits, or bring the person to a higher level of consciousness. While trepanation suggests that medical therapy was applied to this man, the researchers cannot be sure if it relates in any way to his Madura foot.

Only two other cases of Madura foot have been reported in the literature on ancient skeletons: one from Mexico dating to between 1300-100 BC, and one from Israel dating to between 300-600 AD. This new case from southern Portugal is therefore important not only as an addition to the literature but as an indication that climate change may have influenced the spread of this disease.

As Curto summed up for me, ”This finding reminds us how the study of palaeopathology can give us a better understanding of diseases today. It also shows the impact that cultural changes — like the use of footwear — can have on disease distribution.”

To read more about this case, read Ana Curto and Teresa Fernandes’s article, “A possible Madura foot from medieval Estremoz, southern Portugal,” in the June 2016 issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology. Or, if you want to play with a 3D model of the diseased heel bone, check out their model here at SketchFab.

This post is syndicated from my blog at Forbes. I am hoping that by syndicating content (which I'm allowed to do under my contract five days after posting), I'll be able to bring you stories to read without the Forbes ad-blocker-blocker. I'll be starting with perhaps one per week, and see how this experiment goes!

March 1, 2016

This Month at Forbes - Dozier Boys, Ancient Laptops, Brown-Eyed Girls, Mardi Gras, Sci-Fi Archaeology, Foot Fungus, and DNA

February may be a short month, but I wrote plenty over at Forbes, including:
I know that all the changes Forbes has made to ad delivery make the site nearly unreadable. *sigh* So, as always, I appreciate it a lot when you click through and read these pieces.  Coming up in March, stories on ancient Greece and technology in archaeology.

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival LXXIX

When I first started writing the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival, I posted every two weeks.  Then dropped down to every month because I was busy.  And now it seems I'm dropping down to every two months. So it goes.  Without further ado, here's the news I collected over January and February, including news stories that I wrote and a few of the news stories that feature my own research!


One of the "headless Roman gladiators" from York

Multiple burial from Azerbaijan
  • 12 February - Visiting a Couple Locked in an 1,800-year-old Embrace (National Geographic). This multiple burial in Azerbaijan, at a site called Old Galaba along the Silk Road, involves two people buried at the same time. Of course, since this was covered near Valentine's Day, they are a couple and are embracing. :-P
  • 14 February - St. Valentine's Skull (Atlas Obscura). This saint was martyred in 273 AD on, of course, February 14. While this skull is supposedly that of the saint, there is plenty of doubt.
Purported skull of St. Valentine
  • 18 February - Ancient Roman Lifestyles of the Poor and Infamous (Forbes). I wrote this piece to give individual life context to each of the four immigrants I found in the research published this month in PLOS. So if you want to know more about what their lives were like and the injuries they had, check this out.
Upper jaw of an immigrant to Imperial Rome (Credit: K. Killgrove)
As always, if you want to stay on top of skeletal news from the Roman world, and internationally, follow my Powered by Osteons page on Facebook!

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