Bioarchaeology Outreach Activities


A few weeks ago the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History hosted Archaeology Day, a biannual event during which local middle school classes visit the museum and participate in different activity stations scattered throughout the building. This year, Abagail Breidenstein and I coordinated with Museum staff in order to test out some new bioarchaeological stations, and had a great time identifying bones and estimating the sex of crania with lots of excitable 7th graders.

We developed two new stations for this archaeology day. Abagail used casts of human crania and figures from Buikstra and Ubelaker’s Standards to teach students about how anthropologists can assess the sex of an individual feature using the appearance of the cranium and mandible.
Activity 1 – Male or Female?
I was determined to showcase the horse skull from our Zooarchaeology lab – veteran of many past Archaeology and Behind the Scenes days, and one of my favorite faunal specimens from our archaeology collections. To that end, I put together a station focused on differentiating human and animal bones, that also taught students how to calculate how many people are buried in a given place.
Activity 2 – How many people?
Developing these new activity stations was part of a larger initiative on part of the Biological Anthropology Graduate Students association (BAGS, for short). We are currently aiming to get a number of outreach projects off of the ground, from drawing exchanges between schools all over the world, to giving talks about anthropology research at local schools.

We’re using our new website as a repository for outreach activities and resources. If you’d like a copy of the bioarchaeology activity station handouts and guides, they are available for download here on our outreach page:

If you have suggestions for further outreach activities, or are looking for advice on running your own museum day, feel free to contact any of the BAGS Exec.

On that note, Happy Thanksgiving! May your long weekend (and mine) be filled with several pounds of sugar.

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Part of the Family: Age, Identity and Burial in Copper Age Iberia

I don’t spend a vast amount of time on the blog talking about my own bioarchaeological research in Iberia, in part because it already consumes so much of the rest of my life, and in part because it is rarely an appropriate forum for posting amusing pictures of animals. However, if you have been on tenterhooks as to the results of my summers spent in a museum basement in Jaén, you’re in luck: I contributed a chapter to the Springer edited volume Theoretical Approaches to Analysis and Interpretation of Commingled Human Remains that was just published.

The chapter summarizes some of the preliminary results of my Iberian research. In brief, it outlines the strategies I’ve used to turn thousands of fragments of human bones and teeth into concrete data about what life was like during the Copper Age. I’m particularly focused on how people buried their dead, and what that means about living societies and how they were organized. I’ve included the abstract and a link to the pdf below. If you’re a reader of the blog who is curious about my academic research, I think it’s worth a read. If you’re just here looking for funny pictures of cats, I would give this one a miss, but I highly recommend this post on isotopes instead.
First page
Abstract: Recent work has called attention to the significant numbers of subadults recovered from Late Prehistoric burial contexts in western Iberia. However, subadult burials are also documented at some of the well-known, large-scale Copper Age centers of southeastern Spain, where adults and subadults are represented in both commingled and individual inhumations. The importance of the inclusion and mortuary treatment of subadults at such centers of social and economic activity has yet to be sufficiently explored. Here, I discuss the implications of the presence of subadults for the formation and representation of community identity, with particular emphasis on the case of Marroquíes Bajos. At this site, salvage excavations have yielded evidence of five concentric ditches and one adobe wall that encompass an area of approximately 113 ha, making it one of the largest “matrix villages” of the Iberian Copper Age. Marroquíes Bajos is also a particularly relevant case because subadults occur in formally and spatially distinct funerary contexts. Their remains appear in mortuary structures housing only fragmentary and commingled remains, in mortuary structures housing discrete primary and secondary interments, and in a large, commingled interment in an artificial cave. The significance of subadult burials at Marroquíes Bajos is explored relative to theoretical interpretations of childhood in prehistory, in particular relative to ethnographically and archaeologically documented rites of passage.

PDF HereBeck 2015 – Part of the Family – Age, Identity and Burial in Copper Age Iberia

Thanks to the Museo de Jaén for their tremendous support while collecting data, Pedro Díaz-del-Río, Anna Waterman and Jonathan Thomas for feedback on initial drafts and ideas, and Anna Osterholtz for her assistance on the editorial side of things.

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Four-Field Talk Tomorrow: Bare Bones?

The department that I’m part of is a four-field anthropology department, meaning that it contains archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, linguistic anthropologists, and biological anthropologists. Four-field approaches are valuable because they encompass the whole scope of human cultural practices and behaviors, examining human existence from the perspectives of language, social norms, material culture, and the deep evolutionary past of our species. Unlike the highly specialized environment of the field today, many old school anthropologists dabbled in more than one field of anthropology, following in the footsteps of the discipline’s founding father, Franz Boaz:

Franz Boas

Hoop game on point.

However, in graduate school it’s pretty easy for that inclusive attitude to get lost in the shuffle, especially once you’re focused on the monolithic project that is your dissertation. That’s one of the reasons we have “Four Field Grad Talks,” which are an opportunity to learn about research from colleagues in each of the anthropological subfields. Over the years I’ve learned a lot from sitting in on these talks, from how subfields vary in their conference presentation styles, to how linguistic anthropologists interact with informants, and how much of a pain in the butt it is to chase non-human primates over hill and vale while trying to conduct focals.

In the spirit of four-field collaboration, tomorrow I’ll be giving short talk introducing the “sub sub-field” of bioarchaeology. The proximate reason for my participation is that I’m always excited to talk about my research with other anthropologists in my department. There are only two other graduate students here pursuing bioarch-related research, so I think we all feel a responsibility to publicize how valuable human skeletal remains are for learning about the past. My ultimate imperative, however, is the same as it has been through the course of my academic career.

So, if you’re in the area and interested in learning more about bioarchaeology, this is a great opportunity! Also, have I mentioned that there will be snacks? Details below.
FOUR FIELD ANTHROPOLOGY GRADUATE TALK SERIES copyImage Credits: Great Boaz picture from Andy White, here. Original gifs found here and here. Thanks to Rachna Reddy for organizing the talks and putting the flyer together.

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Hip hip hooray: Orienting and identifying features of the os coxae

Zooarch Range Door

One of the ranges in my museum is decorated with a number of different osteological puns, and every time I walk past their on point door makes me jealous.  I’ve always been particularly envious of the “Hip Hip Hooray” slogan, since I have a close friend who studies the bony pelvis in fossil hominins.
Hip Hip Hooray!

Unfortunately, I think few novice osteologists share my positive reaction to the pelvis. Though orienting the ossa coxae and identifying features of the bony pelvis seems intuitive after a few years of experience with osteology, in the beginning this is a deplorably tricky anatomical region to master.

  1.  First, the dimensions of the os coxae are tough to break down into an anterior/posterior or medial/lateral surface because of the distinctive orientation of features like the pubic symphyseal face and the ischial tuberosity.
  2. Second, these bones are particularly difficult for beginner osteologists to orient. In contrast to the relatively simple “proximal end – shaft – distal end” structure of the long bones, the pelvis expands in multiple directions, making it seem impossible to decipher which end is up.
  3. Third, there’s no real visible reference point on the human body to double-check your orientation. With regions like the mandible or the bones of the hand, you can use the proportions and appearance of your own body, but with the pelvis, no such luck – it’s buried in too much soft tissue.

Keeping all of these difficulties in mind, this post provides a series of tips and visualization tricks that will allow novice osteologists to familiarize themselves with the os coxae and learn how to orient isolated hip bones and identify specific features with ease. As a terminological note, a single hip bone is referred to as an os coxae or innominate bone, while more than one are pluralized as ossa coxae or innominate bones. All tips are available as a pdf at the end of the post.


PDF: Bone Broke Guide to Orienting and Identifying Features of the Os Coxae


Image credits: Hip Hip hooray image found here. Picasso photo found here. Colored pelvic girdle from Teach Me Anatomy, found here. Mouse lemur photo found here. Alien image found here. Pacman found here. Croissant found here. Delicate arch photo found here. Pachycephalosaurus head by Eloy Manzanero, found here. Kidney bean photo found here. Thumb found here. Stone steps found here. Bread dough found here. 90˚ angle found here. Fan found here. All images of the left os coxae are photographs of a Bone Clones European Male innominate.

References: I double checked my feature names and orientation in HBM and aging in the JS.

Scheuer, Louise, and Sue Black. 2004. The Juvenile Skeleton. Elsevier, Academic Press: Amsterdam.

White, T. D. and P.A. Folkens. (2005) The Human Bone Manual. Elsevier, Academic Press: Amsterdam.

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In essence, isotopes are different varieties of the same kind of element. Their atoms have the same number of protons but variable numbers of neutrons, meaning that they differ from each other in terms of their atomic weight.

For example, carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14 are all isotopes of carbon. The numeric modifier reflects the differing weights of each isotope. Every atom of these isotopes contains 6 protons and then 6 (12C), 7 (13C), or 8 (14C) neutrons respectively.

Rottweilers explain isotopes
Isotopes can be stable, meaning that they do not decay over time, or radiogenic, meaning that they decay into isotopes of other elements over time.
Fat cats remain stable over timeWhile skinny cats decay into demons over time
Within bioarchaeology, stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen can be used to reconstruct prehistoric diets, and stable isotopes of strontium and oxygen can be used to examine mobility in the past. Radiogenic isotopes like 14C can also be used to date organic archaeological samples that are up to 45,000 years old.

Chemistry catIn future bioarchaeology vocab posts I’ll go over the key isotopes that are particularly important in bioarchaeology, including stable isotopes of carbon (12C + 13C), nitrogen (14N + 15N), strontium (86Sr + 87Sr), and the radioisotope 14C.

Image Credits: Carbon rottweiler found here. Carbon-12 rottweiler found here. Carbon-13 rottweiler found here. Carbon-14 rottweiler found here. First stable isotope cat found here, second found here. First radioactive isotope cat found here, second found here.
Chemistry cat helium joke found here.

References: If you want to learn more about isotopes, I highly recommend the following chapter, which is available for free as a pdf online (link):

ResearchBlogging.orgTykot, R. (2006). Isotope Analyses and the Histories of Maize Histories of maize: multidisciplinary approaches to the prehistory, linguistics, biogeography, domestication, and evolution of maize, 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/B978-012369364-8/50262-X

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Piecing together the puzzle: Brown bag at UMMAA

I’ll be giving a talk today at noon at the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. The talk will take place in the Ruthven Museum of Natural History, Room 2009. If you attend, you’ll also get to hear from fellow archaeologist Bree Doering about her Alaskan adventures and obsession with salmon. It’s guaranteed* to be a fun time!

*As long as you’re super into fish and fragmentary human skeletal remains.

Brown Bag Flyer October 1st

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Anthropology Teaching Tips: Playdoh

Playdoh_MakingAs you may have garnered from the radio silence that blanketed the blog for week-long periods this summer, in July and August I solo taught my first self-designed course. Now, at this point in my academic career, I have a lot of teaching experience under my belt. I’ve acted as a graduate student instructor for Human Evolution, Human Behavioral Ecology, Introduction to Biological Anthropology, Primate Social Behavior and Nutrition and Human Evolution. I am eminently comfortable standing in front of students and talking about anything anthropology-related. However, my first time teaching my own course was still an academic milestone, and I was pretty jazzed to (a) finally teach some osteology, and (b) experiment with a few unconvential teaching methods.

Despite my aptitude for coming up with creative approaches to teaching human skeletal anatomy, I can’t claim credit for the playdoh idea. I first heard about it at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings in St. Louis last spring, when I visited Kristina Killgrove and Andrea Acosta‘s poster, titled “Twerking, Limericks, and 3D Printing: Shaking Up Human Osteology Assignments“. I was intrigued by the possibility of getting students to do something so hands-on, and after striking up a conversation with Kristina about the feasibility of such a project, decided to go for it. Kristina kindly shared her go-to recipe for play-doh (provided by an accomodating kindergarten teacher), and I set to work:
Play Doh Recipe

I knew that I would need to make enough play-doh for 17 students, and so I wound up making four batches, using the recipe above. Here’s a step by step guide to what the playdoh should look like at each of the different stages:

Play-doh making process

This play-doh recipe produces a product of exactly the same consistency (and smell) as the factory made stuff. I tested out the assignment before asking my students to use this to model bones, and it works pretty well, though intricate three-dimensional pieces will be prone to collapse.


I made three blue batches and one red batch, using the food-coloring that you can buy in most grocery store bakery aisles. This turned out to produce an ample amount for my class, and I think I could have easily gotten away with only three batches. To give you some idea of the volume the recipe produces, one batch produces this much ‘doh (Note: For scale, I am 5″4 on a good day):

One batch

If you find yourself captivated by the possibility of using play-doh in your own courses, here are the first two activities I piloted this past summer.

1. Making a model of the innominate: The ossa coxae can be some of the most difficult bones for novice osteologists to master, because their features are three-dimensional and tricky to orient. This summer I was teaching a bioarchaeology class, rather than an osteology class, so I needed a way to rapidly familiarize students with the structure of the bony pelvis so that they could learn how to estimate sex and confidently assess pelvic features. My solution to this dilemma was to have students craft a play-doh model of a single innominate, marking out specific features in red.
Activity 1Play-doh innominate

2. Reconstructing the subadult tibia…from memory: In this activity, I wanted students to internalize the anatomy of the structure of  the subadult tibia as a means of firmly grasping the nature of primary and secondary centers of ossification. First, one of our lab activities entailed drawing a subadult tibia (with me making some heavy-handed hints about the importance of mastering its anatomy):

Tibia activity Then, during the quiz the following week, the final question instructed students to craft their own model of a subadult tibia, delineating primary centers of ossification in red and secondary centers of ossification in blue. The students did quite well, with many getting the bonus points I awarded if they also correctly modelled the anterior tibial crest and medial malleolus.

Tibia quiz questionSo there you have it – one hands-on strategy you can use to encourage students to engage with anatomy, without relying solely on sketching.
Stell's BellsThanks are due to Stella for careful supervision of the play-doh making process, and to Z. Cofran for photographic documentation of the recipe.

Disclaimer: The beautiful kitchen pictured in the photo series is not, in fact, my own. In terms of both size and aesthetic appel, my real kitchen is basically a ship’s galley.

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