ATLANTA — Les Brown and Sarah Livengood are detectives in what the field of anthropology is dedicated – understanding the peoples of the past by looking at what they left behind. For many anthropologists, those clues often take the form of what humans make – shards of pottery and the rubble of once great architecture, for example.
But for the master’s students and their faculty advisor, Bethany Turner, their microscopes are turned to the organic remains of the humans themselves, who lived long ago in the Americas. Those remains can tell a lot about a society: diet, social status and even migration.
Les Brown’s work is termed bioarchaeology, something she would like to pursue in her doctoral studies.
Brown, a master’s student, examines something that some people might find off-putting, but something that reveals much information – paleofeces, or the ancient remains of human waste.
“It is an incredibly rich source of information, though not a lot of people are comfortable with it,” she explained. “It is fascinating, but has not really been tapped that much.”
The remains are a treasure trove of information: they can tell what someone ate, food storage practices, diseases, DNA signatures, parasites, available food in the area and even hormone levels.
Her work is termed bioarchaeology, which is something that she would like to pursue in doctoral studies.
“The field bleeds across multiple disciplines,” Brown said. “It’s often the red-headed stepchild of anthropology, since it’s a subfield of a subfield. But we have fantastic equipment now in order to do research that we didn’t in the past.”
Other remains can also yield more clues about ancient societies. Turner, who is the students’ advisor and an assistant professor, is researching how dental remains of the Inca can tell more about the ancient civilization.
Sarah Livengood analyzes the dental remains of the Inca in hopes of learning more about the ancient civilization.
Just like Turner, Livengood is pursuing dental research that will help yield greater understanding of the Inca by examining isotopic data of ancient dental remains and the microscopic signs of wear on them.
“There is a lot still to be learned about the Inca,” Livengood said. “A lot of what we know about the Inca comes from historical records from Europeans. We don’t have as much research as studies about the Romans and ancient Greeks. This research is in its infancy and there are many opportunities to learn more.”
In the analysis of the ancient teeth, Livengood makes dental molds to look at the microscopic pits and scratches to detect what the individual ate. The pits and scratches can indicate an abrasive diet, such as eating maize or grasses.
Ultimately, by looking at individuals’ diets, Livengood and other researchers can help discern migration patterns within the empire of the Inca.
“Dental microwear indicators are the marks of last meals,” she said. “Combined with isotopic analysis, the teeth can indicate the last several years of an individual’s diet.”
Brown and Livengood said they have gained valuable skills during their time in Georgia State’s anthropology department. As part of Turner’s team, they’re also beneficiaries of new lab space – and equipment – in Kell Hall, which was recently vacated by another department that moved to the Parker H. Petit Science Center.
“I’ve gained such a large skill set here,” Livengood said. “Using the biological equipment helps to provide good skill sets that are desirable when you apply for a Ph.D. program.”
For more about the anthropology department at Georgia State, visit www.cas.gsu.edu/anthropology. For more about Turner’s research into the remains of the Inca, visit www.cas.gsu.edu/storydetail.aspx?id=334.
Jan. 9, 2012