Fieldwork Comes to an End

Hello anthropologists,

I know it has been a while since my last post, and there is more to catch up on than I could ever cover. But I can say that I have officially finished my fieldwork in Guatemala now. It was nothing like I expected it to be, so many things went wrong I don’t know where to begin. But some things went right, thankfully enough things that I can move forward with my thesis. In the end, had everything gone the way it was supposed to I wouldn’t have discovered the stories I did–stories that are arguably more urgent than the stories I sought in the beginning. And I suppose that’s how most fieldwork happens, you don’t really know what questions to ask until you’re in the thick of it.

I went to Guatemala originally with the intention of studying the effectiveness of the reconciliation process after their civil war. After coming up against more roadblocks than I could imagine, it became clear that there is something deeply wrong with the forensic anthropological efforts happening in Guatemala, especially in how these efforts are influencing contemporary impunity for those who commit gang related violence. None of this is cheerful stuff, but it’s necessary if anthropologists are to understand the influences on and the consequences of their involvement.

It all comes back around to theory, how do we acknowledge and account for our bias when doing anthropology? How do we ensure the best outcome for the greatest number of people, without losing sight of the bigger picture?

I paid a visit to the paupers’ cemetery in Guatemala City to find information on a contact’s missing father. It was stifling hot and a fine, red dust settled on our trainers as we walked down the sandy loam pathways. We were given hurried directions by a vendor set up along the side of the road, hawking blank tombstones for the recently bereaved. He pointed and said we needed to walk down to the very end if we wanted to see the XXX cemetery. This is the resting place of the unidentified in Guatemala City, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I thought that the XXX cemetery was named so because the graves were marked with ‘XXX’ since the identities were unknown, I also thought that it would be a cemetery. But as I soon came to realise, the XXX referred to the three crosses that stood sentry at its mouth. All of the graves–save a special few–were unmarked, abandoned, and accumulating garbage. This was not a cemetery either, this was a boneyard. Human remains were emerging from that sandy loam of the pathway. I stood over a human talus (ankle), and began to brush the excess dirt away before I remembered myself. I had no legal or ethical right to move or even touch this bone, whatever obligation I felt toward the remains had to be abandoned for my own safety. I stood and as I walked away I began to weep, for that talus emerging from the ground belonged to a person whose family searched for them, it belonged to someone who died alone and nameless. That talus could have even belonged to my contact’s father–she had her back to me now as she looked over the rows of fresh graves. When she turned I saw that she was weeping too.


What did she or I gain from this visit? Certainly not answers, rather more questions and mounting frustration at the ineptitude and cruelty of her situation.

I didn’t conduct nearly as much work in Guatemala as I had wanted to, but now my work must turn to the institutions that enable the ongoing violence and impunity. And not just in Guatemala, but in all the countries scrambling through the reconciliation process.

I will be presenting on my experiences in Guatemala at the SARG seminar on May 22nd at Durham University.

As always, send me any questions through the contact page

Volcán Acatenango

Hola, chicos!
As per a request from a follower, I’d like to spend some time today writing about my recent experience climbing my first mountain, Volcán Acatenango. As you may have guessed from its name, Acatenango is a stratovolcano in Guatemala which overlooks its more active sister Volcán Fuego. Stratovolcanoes are formed from layer upon layer of volcanic deposits, such as ash and lava, and in the case of Acatenango and Fuego, creating cinder cones. At 3,976 meters (13.045 ft), Acatenango is a monster of a hike. It was absolutely the most difficult, and even the loneliest, experience of my entire life.
My first reaction to the Acatenango hike was incredulity. The first person I met in Antigua left to climb Acatenango and returned the same afternoon, having vomited uncontrollably from altitude sickness at the mouth of the trail! It was common knowledge that several girls had died near the summit in January from hypothermia. As more of my friends took on the challenge and succeeded I began to collect the expressions of exhaustion and misery on their faces upon their return—mostly as reasons never to climb the blasted thing. Then to my luck, I met a person who not only climbed Acatenango, he climbed it multiple times for fun. He even helped rescue a lost hiker who had wandered off mid-trek. This person, who wields a certain emotional influence as my boyfriend, spoke excitedly about how we should climb it together. I agreed but on the condition that I climb it on my own first, for I knew that I didn’t want him to see me in the wretched state that was inevitable my first time up.
Embracing my fate, I tried to brace myself for the physically and spiritually decimating experience that lay ahead of me. But, as I would discover, this was impossible. I asked each person I could about how difficult the climb was, what the hardest parts were, what advice they had for me. One person, overhearing that I have asthma, jumped into the conversation and said I shouldn’t even try climbing it, but luckily ‘pretty blonde girls don’t get left on top of Acatenango.’ Thanks, creepy guy.
I knew my breathing issues would be a tremendous obstacle at high altitudes, and my limited cardio fitness as a result of those breathing problems would be debilitating hiking these steep inclines. But for some reason, I decided something along the lines of ‘screw it, I’ll inch up the summit if I have to,’ and signed up for a guided overnight trip. The day before my hike was set to start, I decided to do the afternoon Volcán Pacaya hike as a warm up. The guide told us to expect a 1.5 hour hike to the top, and we set off. At first, I stayed with the majority of the group, but 35 minutes in I fell behind significantly. I could hardly breathe, needing to stop every 10 feet or so to get my pulse down from 130 bpm. I thought I would never make it, as I thought we had almost an hour left. But 10 minutes later, I was scrambling up the summit. It took us 45 minutes to make a 1.5 journey. This is where I learned something that would potentially save my life on Acatenango the next day, volcano guides will go as fast as they possibly can and will not stop to accommodate the slower, or even average, hikers. Had I gone as fast as was comfortable for me, I would have made it up in the normal time.

When I told my friends who had hiked both Pacaya and Acatenango that I found Pacaya difficult, they looked at me in what can only be described as abject horror. ‘Pacaya is nothing compared to Acatenango, Sarah. Absolutely nothing.’ This was followed by a look of ‘well I guess I’ll see you at your funeral.’ As you can imagine, this did nothing to calm my pre-trek nerves. Neither did the boyfriend saying that even he suffers from altitude sickness when he goes up. I lay in bed the morning of the hike, thinking critically about every life decision that led me to this point. Yet somehow I got up, put on my pack which held 4 litres of water, a winter coat, hat, gloves, sweater, an inhaler, and an entire loaf of banana bread, and headed to the pick up point.
I looked around at my hiking comrades, and had a sinking feeling for I knew that I would be the slowest one of the entire group. The guides gave each of us a cheap sleeping bag, pad, and a piece of tent to carry with us. When we were all geared up, we set off up the trail, at first passing farmland and pasturing horses. But by 30 minutes in, I began to fall behind. I remember choosing points 10 ft ahead, or sometimes less, and thinking ‘just get to that point, at the weird looking plant you can rest.’ I did this for the rest of the trek. To contextualise how bad this was, the hike was to last 6 hours. I fell so far behind that for the majority of the hike I was only walking with the guide that brought up the rear of the group. To be clear, I was the entirety of the rear.
It was hot. I stopped every minute or two to lower my heart rate and I wipe streams of sweat from my forehead. Tito, the rear guide, spoke in slow and simple Spanish to me, small talk to maybe take my mind off what was clearly a gruelling process for me. Right before our first proper rest, an hour into the hike, Tito looked at me and said in a worried tone that the mountain was much higher than what we had just climbed. In what was definitely a ‘lost in translation’ moment, he literally pushed me up the last few steps by the bum. An entirely useless, unwanted, but hilarious action that had my hiking companions asking who they had to pay for the ‘special’ hiking experience.
From there we ascended into the rain forest section of the mountain. Acatenango is so tall that it can harbour several types of distinct environments in its hot lower sections, and cool higher sections. The path here was overhung by vines and verdant trees, roots were the main footholds in the compact dirt and mud. By this point, Tito realised that he could catch up with my glacial pace in minutes and decided to hang out and text his girlfriend for a while before following on. So I spent most of the hike walking alone on increasingly misty paths as we ascended into the pine forests.
I was so high up, that what had appeared to be mist was actually cloud, hanging densely around me. The mud became hard and the ground was scattered with pine needles. The trees thinned, and around 3,400 metres there was no question you had entered an entirely different environment. I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. I thought about the girls who had died and genuinely prayed that we wouldn’t get caught in a storm. When I caught up with the rest of the group, they were having burritos for lunch. It’s an unfair truth that the hikers who are suffering the most get fewer and shorter rests, as the majority of the group rests while waiting for us to catch them up. The air was properly cold now, but we knew that putting on layers would be a big mistake, as we would only sweat through it when we started moving.
The path here was winding and grassy. It swerved back and forth, yet somehow remained impossibly steep. The clouds clung to us. To my complete surprise I couldn’t feel the thinning air. Perhaps because I had ascended so slowly, I had time to adjust, but at least one person started to fall behind, his pulse rising to match mine. I estimate that my pulse-rate remained at or above 120 bmp for the entire 6 hour hike. We hiked through the cloud pine forest for 2 hours, always with the threat of rain around us. But what we thought was thunder would soon reveal itself to be something more incredible than we could imagine. Halfway through the pine forest, I realised that I would actually make it to basecamp, and for the first time during this entire challenge I was genuinely proud of myself.
The guides gathered us together and told us that basecamp was only 30 minutes away. I don’t recall ever being so happy. We stepped through the last of the pines and onto an ashy, gravelly path that snaked around the rocky summit that extended 300 metres above us. We climbed up and down rocky protrusions, gnarled trees and their roots, and through ash that had wasted onto the trail. The enormous rumblings were growing louder and before we knew it, we came to a small clearing and saw the source of the noise. Volcán Fuego stood before us, enormous at 3,763 metres, and fiercely active. Within minutes of our arrival to basecamp, she was throwing up magma in massive eruptions and lava was streaming down her sides. No camera could ever capture the terrifying and cathartic magnitude of such a sight, but we certainly tried.

To be honest, I fell into the trap of relaxing after the first haul of the hike. I let my body get used to the rest and low pulse rate. In my mind, I knew the last leg of the hike was only 1.5 hours and wouldn’t be for many hours and after we slept. But even after a nice spaghetti dinner and warming up by the fire, the wind rattled the tent badly and the 3 Celsius air slipped into our sleeping bags so thoroughly that I don’t think I slept at all. When the guides started yelling ‘chicos chicos buenos dias’ at 4am, a collective groan emanated from each tent. When I sat up, I was nauseated, I was shivering uncontrollably, and the very real desire to bail on the summit climb edged its way into my mind. Putting on all of my kit, getting my torch, and picking up my walking sticks were some of the hardest challenges of the trek. After all, every hiker will tell you Acatenango is 20% physical 80% mental. My bones felt too heavy to carry, but I kept telling myself ‘you can’t make it to basecamp just to give up now.’ I fell behind the group immediately, but looking back maybe this was a blessing. I missed my boyfriend (who was at fault for all of this really), I missed my friends who I knew would be cheering me on, I missed my parents who I knew would be so stupidly proud. As patient as Tito was, I could tell he wasn’t in this challenge with me. But clambering over the steep rocks on a path only Tito could see, slipping backwards as the loose, ashy soil gave way under my feet in the darkness, accompanied only by my heavy panting, the booming encouragement of Fuego behind me, and the quivering light of my torch, was all immensely revealing about myself. I have never in my life wanted to quit so badly so many times in the course of an hour, it was like part of my brain was screaming at the other to make the pain stop. And I looked at myself each time, and said ‘not on your goddamn life.’

I’m truly afraid of very few things. Those of you who know me well know that I sought out my biological family without hesitation, I moved to a foreign country, I’ve travelled alone, I’ve taken on rigorous degrees, I’ve gotten tattoos, I’ve eaten things I couldn’t identify, I’ve given lectures to hundreds of people, I would jump out of a plane tomorrow. But Acatenango terrified me. It terrified me in part because I genuinely thought I couldn’t tackle it. It terrified me because it would require my body to come through for me, when in so many ways it has not. I summited as the sun rose. With a broken body and no fear.

I looked at Tito, wanting to share that moment. He said ‘bueno’ and walked away.
The wind felt like it would sweep me off the zenith. It burned my face as I looked over Fuego, Volcán de Agua, Antigua, and the blanket of clouds below tinted yellow by the dawn. The caldera of the volcano was a smooth dip in the ash, as if someone had taken a giant spoon and pressed down firmly. I trudged up each peak around it, trying to make the reality of our height sink in. I tried to take a photo and discovered to my dismay and disgust that I had shorted out my phone by sweating through my coat pockets and drenching it.
When it was time to descend, we were all grateful. I couldn’t feel my fingers. It was like skiing in dirt with my walking sticks. Back at basecamp, we broke down our tents, repacked our bags, and had a hearty breakfast of cup ramen and instant coffee. I had little energy left, but I knew I could never gain any from staying up in the cold where I couldn’t sleep.
In all my interviews with people who had climbed Acatenango, everyone said the first 30 minutes up and the last 30 minutes to the summit are the hardest. Not one person mentioned that going down was just as brutal as going up. While some of the fitter young men of the group literally ran down the mountain, I slipped and slid. Falling not one, not two, not three, not four, but five times, landing like an upside down turtle–at one point getting rammed into by one of those young men running down the path as I tried to lift myself and my pack onto my feet. At this fateful point, the guide decided that going down didn’t require any breaks. I fell behind quickly. My toes were getting crushed badly by my shoes. While my breathing was no longer an issue, my muscles, which had offered no complaint going up, started to tremble. I had nothing left to give, I had foolishly put everything I had into the summit push. I was hysterical halfway down. The utter exhaustion, the pain, the thought of the journey ahead of me, the compulsion to finish the trek without help, all manifested as tears. I may have climbed Acatenango, but she was repaying me in kind. I had blisters on my hands and feet, the sun was scorching my skin, my toenails felt like they were being ripped off. One girl stayed behind with me, and Tito trailed after us, offering to carry my pack for the last 20 minutes. Which I refused.
In those last few minutes, I wasn’t a person anymore. The mountain had taken everything from me. My spirit, my dignity, my cellphone. Even as I write this, 24 hours after finishing the trek, I’m having trouble feeling anything. Except a concavity in my chest and searing pain when I try to sit down anywhere. At least my toenails have returned to normal.
Was it worth it? It’s a good question. Was it worth it for the view? No. Was it worth it for the boy? Nah. Was it worth it because I learned a valuable lesson about myself? Hell yes. I gave everything I had to this journey, I gave more of my strength and my spirit to Acatenango than I’ve ever given anything. I said to myself that I would try my best, and my best brought me to the top of a mountain. And if that’s not worth it, I don’t know what is.


Fieldwork Entry 1: Antigua and Semana Santa

As some of you undoubtedly know, I’m now in the beautiful Guatemala for the first leg of my research–and honestly, the words to properly describe this place escape me. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in my short life, but Guatemala is hands down the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The seismic activity of the area has carved out a landscape of enormous volcanoes, jutting ridges, black sand beaches that sparkle gold, and vast lakes that shift from grey to bright green with the changing light. I have yet to see a monkey, but everything in its time I suppose.

Without realising, I booked my flights for the beginning of something called Semana Santa, the celebratory week before Easter Sunday. This meant that when I arrived in Antigua, the locals were preparing for a week of religious processions that would shut down the city, and for the overwhelming influx of people from the surrounding areas.


Locals and visitors alike composed carpets of flowers and coloured sawdust along the cobble streets. These lined the path of the processors who hold aloft enormous wooden floats with statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, transforming the Central American city into the Via Dolorosa. There was something haunting about how these floats swayed in time with the slow march of their bearers, and even a staunch agnostic like me couldn’t help but feel catharsis as these believers carried their god upon their shoulders, with a full orchestra following behind. To add to this impressive spectacle, men in full purple or black robes walk ahead of the floats and filled the air with thick incense.
Semana Santa also presented some problems as a newly arrived anthropologist, it was nearly impossible to be seen as anything but a gullible tourist. To be fair, this was the peak of the tourist season, but attitudes towards my presence seem to have softened now that Semana Santa is over. And maybe I come across as less of a tourist now that I know how to hail a chicken bus–the flamboyantly painted American style school busses that act as the cheapest form of public transport–from the side of the highway and not get ripped off by the driver. Or maybe because I’m slowly becoming able to communicate with those who speak no English at all.
After a bit of tourism, I’m now set up in an apartment just outside of Antigua with a local I befriended, and can make my own tortillas and pepián, a local dish resembling mole. On my first day in Antigua, I made the interesting decision to try and navigate the enormous open air market by myself without any Spanish and no Google Translate. After getting ripped off fantastically for some onions, I came across the only English speaker in the entire place, who directed me to a stall that sold lemongrass. And in a wonderfully serendipitous moment, this gentleman ran the cooking class I turned up to later in the evening!
In fact, most of this trip can be described as serendipitous. On my second day, when I took my camera out for the first time, a pigeon pooed on me–a clear sign of good luck back in Brooklyn. In my short time here I’ve met some really amazing people, and one who even contributed significantly to my research already. So here’s hoping that luck holds.

Keep your eyes out for my next post on Lake Atitlan and the first stages of my research with the FAFG!

Archaeology – An Overview

For my final four-field overview post, I want to talk a little bit about archaeology.  You can find some more specific information about bioarchaeology in my previous posts, but there’s far more to archaeology than just the bones!

First and foremost, let’s clarify, archaeology is not the study of dinosaur fossils.  That would be paleontology, which is a subfield of geology.  Archaeology is, broadly speaking, the study of ancient communities through what they left behind–i.e. their artifacts, architecture, their bones etc. It may seem like an obvious distinction, but it’s a mistake made hilariously often.  My supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History volunteered to talk to a kid on a radio show, and this boy was only interested in dinosaur bones. So please learn the difference and save the soul of an archaeologist today.

Much like biological anthropology, archaeology has some pretty iffy roots in colonialism and eurocentricity.  The first ‘archaeologists’ emerged from something called Antiquarianism.  Interest in artifacts, or even bodies, was superficial in the sense that antiquarians were only concerned with aesthetic.  Provenience (the artifact’s location of origin) and context (what the artifact was associated with in situ, including geological features) were incidental to these early ‘archaeologists,’ and whatever deductions were made about these ancient cultures were correspondingly superficial. A PRIME example of the antiquarian archaeologist is Indiana Jones.  Another good way to break an archaeologist’s heart is to compare them to this particular character.  From an archaeological perspective, the boobytraps that Indy nonchalantly destroys are far more informative in regard to the community that created them than the shiny statue!  These early attitudes lead to the pillaging of colonized countries for their national treasures under the guise of ‘rescuing history.’  The Ishtar Gate, which now resides in Berlin, was originally ‘saved’ from Iraq, and the museum even uses this kind of language to justify their continued possession of this beautiful Babylonian treasure.  Even here in merrie olde England, the debate rages on about many of the collections in British museums across the United Kingdom.  The most famous, or infamous really, is the case of the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum came by these sculptures while Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, bought from a man who literally lassoed them down from the Parthenon and sold them for pennies.  Most of the damage done to these statues is not because of age, rather their acquirement by the British.

This is a cringeworthy history, on a social level by stealing the ancient heritage of disenfranchised peoples, and on an academic level because we could no longer examine these artifacts and monuments in context. Thankfully archaeology has come a long way, producing truckloads of theory. With some stops in between, Antiquarianism morphed into Processual Archaeology, meaning that archaeologists began to look at artifacts in order to learn about the culture they came from.  To the Processualists, artifacts were culture manifested outside of the body and could be used to objectively examine the ‘evolution of culture’ through the scientific method. I put the phrase ‘evolution of culture’ in quotation marks as this concept is based upon the erroneous notion that evolution is a strict line of progression, with civilization (i.e. European civilization) as the pinnacle of progress to which every other culture naturally aspires.  Processualism then became Post-Processualism, which emphasizes the subjectivity of the archaeologist when analyzing archaeological remains. To the Post-Processualists, archaeological finds could only be interpreted in relationship to material that exists in the archaeologist’s experience, and in order to gain the most insight, archaeologists must remain as reflexive as possible.  And when archaeology became a subjective practice, it opened up the discipline to all types of different paradigms of analysis. With this mindset, archaeologists could look at artifacts through a Marxist, structuralist, or feminist lens to name a few. And these conversations are still happening today. Some of my thesis is based upon something called Sensorial Archaeology, which deals with the preeminence of the visual in the practice of archaeology, and how problems with the western hierarchy of the senses manifest in excavations.

Hopefully that didn’t put you straight to sleep, although I wouldn’t blame you. The methods used in archaeological excavations and analysis are a bit more interesting, but probably not nearly as exciting as the movies make them out to be. There is a lot of tedious digging in spots where you’ll inevitably find nothing. My first proper fieldwork was the test pitting stage of an excavation run through Cambridge University. It involved wading through endless fields of rapeseed in the rain, with a grim sandwich for lunch, and looking for lithics (manipulated stone) in a field brimming with flint deposits. It was an exercise in character development.

Working on the more advanced stages of an excavation was far more satisfying.  Barring the 5am wake up call, the excavation of a Roman Necropolis in Spain was incredibly enjoyable. Each dig produced finds, as we were trained how to identify the graves before we began troweling. You can see the edges of the tomb beginning to emerge here after 4 days with a literal broom and dust pan.


From my personal experience, putting eager young undergrads into the field is an entertaining yet probably foolhardy decision.  I was so keen to get to the bottom of the grave that it took every fiber of my being to excavate slowly.  I could see from the grave I had taken over from the previous field school group, that they had suffered from the same problem. There were two individuals in this grave, with one full individual laying supine (on his back), which was a rare find, but in their excitement they had removed the femurs before the skeleton had been fully excavated.

Lecture Image

Look at all the loose femurs!

In these scenarios we need to be careful. A fundamental paradox in archaeology is that we excavate to reveal the context, but in so doing we destroy the context. So each step needs to be documented through field notes and sketches at the very least.  This can be a glacial process that the untrained archaeological student can mess up in a matter of minutes. Nothing is more tempting than to pull out a pesky root as you would when gardening, but roots are sneaky and you cannot risk damaging any artifacts they may have grown through by pulling them willy nilly. And as a novice I was so excited to do things like cranial reconstructions, but the taphonomy that lead to the breakage of the skull in the first place is just as much part of the context as anything else in the grave, and so it’s actually frowned upon now to glue pieces of the skeleton back together.  Undergrad Sarah didn’t understand that the reconstructed skull on the left was actually inferior to the one on the right held together by soil.

Forensic anthropology is, of course, a bit different because if we reconstruct a cranium we can then attempt a facial reconstruction or to match dental records. And in the instances when we do find relatives to return the skeleton to, a full skull helps to humanize the skeleton–which is incidentally another aspect of my doctoral thesis!

Have any questions about archaeological theory or methods?

As always, ask away!



NAGPRA and the Repatriation of Human Remains

Studying human remains can raise some pretty serious ethical questions. The large skeletal collections housed in the United States, like the Terry and Todd collections, are composed largely of dubiously collected remains from all over the world. And while these collections are treated with the utmost respect by researchers, it still does not lessen the damage early archaeological excavations caused the indigenous groups that these remains were taken from. In countries where remains are by and large excavated by archaeologists of the same ethnic heritage–the U.K. and continental Europe mainly–there is an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards excavation and analysis of skeletal remains. However, these areas do not carry the same colonial burden as the United States, where excavations were done without regard to the cultural heritage or the needs of surviving communities.
In 1990, the United States enacted a law called NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). This requires any institution that receives federal funding to return any cultural items to the descendants of the groups that the items were taken from. This includes human remains.
Museums like the American Museum of Natural History faced a monumental task. Many of these cultural artifacts were kept protected in climate controlled collections, and if they were returned immediately would undoubtedly degrade irreparably. It is standard practice now to return items only when there are suitable facilities to keep the artifacts safe.
AMNH faced another monumental problem. They had built their multimillion dollar Rose Center around the Willamette meteorite .  This meteorite had been taken from a Native American group called the Grand Rhode in 1906. As dissembling the Rose Center would be economically catastrophic for the museum, groups from the Grand Rhode are given complete access annually to the meteorite to perform cultural rites. These ceremonies are not open to the public. Similarly, the Archaeology Department will invite members of Native American groups to come examine the artifacts that are still housed within the museum.
The complexity of this issue this is further examined in this documentary about the repatriation of a totem pole.

In many cases, Native American groups do not necessarily want to take repossession of human remains, as they are kept safe in the museum, but do not want the remains to be used for research. The Biological Anthropology Department honours this desire.

Do you have any questions regarding the ethical excavation of human remains? Ask away in the comments section or on the contact page!


Biological Anthropology – An Overview

Biological anthropology is one of the four major subfields of anthropology. Very generally, biological anthropology examines the biological development of human beings–meaning that we study everything from human evolution, our evolutionary cousins (other primates), comparative anatomy, osteology (the study of bones), and ecology.

Here are just some of the many subfields of biological anthropology:

Palaeoanthropology – the study of human evolution and diversity
Primatology – the study of nonhuman primates
Forensic Anthropology – the use of human osteology in a legal context
Bioarchaeology – the study of human remains from archaeological sites
Human Ecology – the study of human interaction with the environment

All of these subjects seek to shed light on our history as organisms, but they also have direct and practical relevance to our world today. A major aspect of primatology, for example, is primate conservation. And forensic anthropology is used all over the world by police departments, major investigative parties after war, and in the wake of mass casualty events such as terrorism or natural disaster.
Very often, the practical subfields of biological anthropology are considered ‘anthropology’s jock-y younger brothers’ because we lack the theoretical framework that social anthropology and archaeology have in spades. But more on that later.

For everybody in New York City (my hometown), there’s a fantastic permanent exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History called the Hall of Human Origins. It gives the lowdown on all of the major themes of biological anthropology and its many subfields. Also worth looking at is the Hall of Primates for just a small taste of the enormous diversity found in our taxonomical order.

It also provides an opportunity to compare your body to those of other apes!amnh

Notice the similar brachial morphology between the human and the orangutan!


On a solemn note:

Anthropology as a whole had a considerable role in proliferation of racist tropes in the late 19th century and well into the 20th. But biological anthropology’s involvement in the proliferation of these tropes is arguably the most sordid. Because we were able to mask our racial bias in the cloak of science, our research into the different ‘races’ of humans could be used as ‘proof’ of white and male supremacy. I put the word race in quotations because in the world of biology race literally means species! Anthropologists had a hand in creating this narrative. One particularly infamous study measured the cranial capacity of different races with the intention of proving that white people had bigger brains and were therefore smarter. This is, of course, bad science and there remains no relationship between brain size and intelligence anyway. When anthropologists began examining human evolution, their research was used to ‘prove’ that people of colour were less evolved and therefore more closely related to other primates than white people were. And these stereotypes have managed to stick around until today! There is also evidence that members of the Nazi Party utilised the same osteological collections that anthropologists rely on today to search for observable differences in the skeleton based on race. So it is critical that biological anthropologists acknowledge their discipline’s history and stand in staunch academic opposition to its lingering effects.

Have any questions about biological anthropology? As always, feel free to leave a comment or message me on the contact page.

Bona fides and such

I received my BA in Anthropology from the beautiful SUNY Geneseo  in 2013, with a concentration in bioarchaeology.  I was lucky enough to work closely with the linguist Dr. Szafran as her TA, where I helped with the biological anthropology bits of her introductory anthropology module.


I made my first trek into British academia at Corpus Christi, Cambridge in 2011, where I completed a survey of British Archaeology programme run through the Association for Cultural Exchange.


spoil Lots of glamorous sifting was involved.


In 2012, I completed my bioarchaeology field school training in the gorgeous Menorca, Spain!


After graduation in 2013, I changed my hair color and headed to the American Museum of Natural History for an internship with the North American Archaeology Laboratory.  And then stuck around like a parasite as an intern for the biological anthropology laboratory.


Occasionally entertaining museum visitors


And winning second place in halloween costume contests as Jane Goodall.

After that year of interning, I headed back to the Olde Country to start my MSc in Palaeopathology at Durham University.  My dissertation received Distinction (first honors) and examined the complex palaeoepidemiology of venereal syphilis and the colonial lens through which much of bioarchaeology has been undertaken.

After graduating in January 2016, I began my PhD thesis entitled Seeing is Believing: Excavation and Reclamation of Human Skeletal Remains in Post Conflict Guatemala.


And now in December 2016, I’m about to take my preliminary viva.  If the university decides it still loves me, I’ll head to Guatemala!

If you have any questions about why I chose anthropology, how you can become an anthropologist, studying abroad in the UK, or interning in NYC, feel free to ask!

What is Anthropology?

It’s the most basic of questions, and the one I get most often.

Just what exactly is it that I do?  Here’s an overview of the basics of anthropology for some context.

ANTHROPO – from the Greek ánthrōpos meaning ‘human’

LOGY – denoting a subject of study

So anthropology literally means the study of humans.  Clearly this is a very broad concept and (as you might guess) anthropology is a broad discipline.  A common word used to describe anthropology is ‘holistic,’ which means that we research people from many angles including their cultures, languages, history, and biology.

Anthropology has gone through many shifts in how it has been practiced throughout its history, and anthropology is currently practiced slightly differently depending on the country.  In the United States, anthropology has four major subfields:

Cultural Anthropology – the study of cultures and societies

Linguistics – the study of language and its development  

Archaeology – the study of ancient material culture (artifacts, buildings etc)  

Biological Anthropology – the study of human biological development

All of these subfields also have subfields of their own and may interconnect to form new subfields.  For example, bioarchaeology is the study of human bones (biological anthropology) from archaeological sites (archaeology).  So instead of looking at what ancient communities created, we look at the people themselves to learn about their health, demography, migration and so on.  To make this even more complicated, this combined subfield then has its own subfields! Palaeopathology for example is the study of ancient diseases, trauma, and disability by looking at skeletal remains from archaeological sites, and is therefore a subfield of bioarchaeology.

In the United Kingdom, archaeology is in an independent department–although this separation is becoming less common even here.  Both the anthropology and the archaeology departments are housed in the same building in Durham, and will often work collaboratively.  For my MSc I studied palaeopathology in the Archaeology Department, now for my PhD I study biological anthropology in the Anthropology Department.

If any of you have watched TV lately, you will probably have heard of Forensic Anthropology.  This is a subfield of biological anthropology and my particular area of interest.  All this means is that we apply anthropological methods in a legal context.  We take those excavation techniques and our knowledge of the human skeleton, and we assist legal and investigative groups identify the long dead, establish cause of death, and prosecute perpetrators.

I’ll go into more detail about all of these fields and subfields in upcoming posts, but if you have any questions feel free to send me a message!