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

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Talks | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Osteology, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Osteology Everywhere: Target Edition

I swung by my local Target a few days ago to pick up much needed supplies (read: miniature cans of Coke Zero, emergency Gatorade, frozen enchiladas). While wandering through the aisles in search of things that I hadn’t realized that I needed , I momentarily entered an osteological wonderland: the Halloween decorations aisle.

Halloween exploded
Upon closer examination, I became somewhat perturbed:

I think if cats had bony ears of this magnitude it would cause some serious issues with their functional anatomy.

I am not a comparative anatomist, but think that if cats had bony ears of this magnitude it would cause some serious issues.

Gator skulls

I can’t tell if the skull on the right has some sort of weirdly cavernous frontonasal suture, or whether it’s supposed to be wearing sunglasses.

Spider skeleton

I was dubious, and KidZone confirmed that I had every right to be suspicious: “spiders do not have a skeleton inside their bodies”.

Bundle burials

I was impressed by the bundle burials, however. And the sassy, if anatomically inaccurate, skeletal fish. On point there, Target.

Has anyone else seen any particularly ridiculous skeletal decorations this far in advance of Halloween? If so, share them in the comments. Happy weekend everybody!

Posted in Osteology Everywhere | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Skeleton Keys – Talk for the Michigan Archaeological Society

Skeleton Keys

Tonight I’m going to be giving a public talk for the Huron Valley chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society. The talk will discuss how to lose ten pounds in a single week, how to make $10,000 a month while working from home, the importance of bioarchaeology as a field, and will also introduce some of my own bioarchaeological research.

I’m going to be bringing a few osteological props to help me discuss assessing age, estimating sex and evaluating health and disease, and I fully plan on making the audience palpae their mastoid processes, gonial angles and anterior tibial crests. I think it’s going to be a fun time!

If you’re in Ann Arbor, and are consumed by a desperate desire to learn more about human skeletal remains, feel free to stop by. The gripping blurb that I penned for the society describes the scope of the presentation and the logistical details:MAS blurb

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Osteology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Homo naledi Discovery

Homo naledi reconstruction by John Gurche.

Incidentally this is also the face I make when my advisor tells me all of the things I need to add to my to do list.

My posts rarely venture into the realm of paleoanthropology, but I want to take a brief moment to tip my hat to the Homo naledi team. The discovery was announced today, and I would be remiss were I not to point out my two former labmates (and, full disclosure, close friends) Caroline VanSickle and Zachary Cofran were involved; they were some of the early career scientists who analyzed the fossils after they came out of the ground.

The remains of H. naledi individuals were discovered by cavers at the Cradle of Humankind site in South Africa in September 2013, and when news reached Lee Berger at the University of Witwaterswrand he assembled a team of “underground astronauts” – individuals with advanced training in archaeology or paleontology who could fit into tight spaces. The following call for help actually went up on Facebook, and circulated widely among the anthropologists that I know:

Berger's Facebook PostThe most qualified people who applied were all women (taking trowel blazing to a whole new subterranean realm), and with the help of several professional cavers they spent a month making the perilous climb down into the cave to painstakingly excavate the fossils.


From left to right Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliot, K. Lindsay Hunter and Hannah Morris.

Then, in summer 2014, a team of international experts, comprised largely of early career scientists, gathered at Wits to analyze the fossils. The group of anthropologists found that all skeletal elements had been recovered and that many of them overlapped, allowing the team to compare multiple examples of the same bone. The recovered crania and dentition showed significant differences in size and form to other known species of Australopithecus or Homo, leading to fossils’ identification as a new species. The researchers named it  naledi after the Sesotho word for “star”, as the chamber that housed the fossils is called Dinaledi, meaning “many stars”.

The Rising Star team found that the assemblage contained over 15 different individuals of both sexes and a wide range of ages. No elements showed cut marks, bite marks or trauma. Taken together, all of this information suggests deliberate disposal of the dead. This may be the earliest instance of purposeful interment in the human lineage, a truly groundbreaking discovery in anthropology (though other paleoanthropologists are skeptical of this claim, as is traditional).

The Homo naledi holotype.

The Homo naledi holotype.

Importantly, this project also put forward a new approach to paleoanthropological research. From the outset, its participants have documented the process of discovery on social media, the excavation team was composed solely of women, and early career scientists, rather than big name “silverback” paleoanthropologists, were deliberately recruited to participate in the analysis of the fossils. The results are being published in only two years, and the preliminary articles are open-access. My hope is that Rising Star acts as a model that continues to make paleoanthropology more accessible, to both young academics and to the general public.

You can read more about the discovery in popular media here:

Washington Post: Fossils found in African cave are new species of human kin, say scientists.

The Guardian: Homo naledi: New species of ancient human discovered, claim scientists.

National Geographic: This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

And the published papers are up, open-access on E-Life:

ResearchBlogging.org Berger et al. (2015). Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife.
ResearchBlogging.org Dirks et al. (2015). Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife.
Image Credits: Facial reconstruction from National Geographic. Image of the caving team found here. Homo naledi holotype found here.

Posted in Anthropology, Biological Anthropology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bone Quiz 20

Michigan UnionYesterday marked the first day of the semester at Michigan. As an older graduate student, the “official” start to the school year sneaks up on you with vicious alacrity. One minute you’re placidly analyzing your data and writing conference abstracts in the muggy, languid calm of late August and then WHAM – in a split second the town is overflowing with students convening impromptu dance parties on sagging porches, blasting music from flag-bedecked balconies, and strolling unhurriedly across high traffic streets, solo cups in hand.*

Pobre gato

Trying to get anything done in Ann Arbor during the first week of the semester.

However, in the true spirit of the back-to-school season, I’ve decided it’s time to kick this year off in a slightly more academic fashion – with a bone quiz! And, because I am now old and cantankerous, it’s going to be a hard one. I want you to identify:

1. Human/non-human;
2. Adult/non-adult;
3. Element;
4. Side;
5. Region of bone (bonus points for both names);
6. Feature visible on bone.

You have three views, a 5cm scale, and an entire comments section in which to formulate hypotheses and discuss your suspicions. Good luck, and may your start of the school year be more restful than mine! Answers will be up one week from today.

Superior View
Superior View

Anterior View
Anterior View
Posterior View
Posterior View

*Incidentally, Michigan’s first football game hit before the semester officially started.

Image Credits: Michigan Union photo found here. Exasperated cat gif found here. All other photos taken at the Museo de Jaén.



Bone Quiz 20 Answers

Posted in Bone Quiz, Osteology | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Abduction and Adduction

I always have a great time when I teach the anatomical terminology of  movement because students generally find it easy to engage with the material. In my Science of Skeletons class I began experimenting with a charades-style activity that required students to quickly learn anatomical directions, motions, and  broad regions (e.g. the appendicular versus axial skeleton). However, one distinction that often trips students up is differentiating between abduction and adduction.


Abduction means movement away from the sagittal plane of the body (or, for fingers and toes, movement away from the midline of the hand or foot).

Adduction refers to movement towards the sagittal plane of the body (or, for fingers and toes, movement towards the midline of the hand or foot).

However because the words are so similar in their spelling, students often forget which term goes with which movement. My fool-proof mnemonic trick for differentiating between the two terms is as follows:

In the summer, when you want to show off your abs at the beach, you keep your arms as far away from your body as possible because it’s so hot out.

In the winter, in constrast, you want to add extra layers to your wardrobe, and you keep your arms close to your body because it is so cold.

I think about ABduction as the process of moving your limbs away from your body when it’s hot out, and ADDuction as the process of keeping your limbs close to your body when it’s cold.
Does anyone else have any creative tricks that they use to differentiate abduction and adduction? Feel free to share tips in the comments!

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

Image Credits: Thor abducting his arm while holding Mjölnir found here, Thor adducting his arm while looking pensive found here. Thor abducting his arm while showing of his abs found here, delighted Thor wearing a cloak found here.

Posted in Anatomy, Bioarchaeology Vocab | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments