Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bone to be wild: Fleshing out a career devoted to skeletons and people

"Every skeleton has a story to tell," says anthropologist George Armelagos. His former students also have some stories, so many that it took a whole day to tell them. 

By Carol Clark

Dennis Van Gerven was flattered when George Armelagos handed him a human femur bone from a burnt-out crime scene and asked him to take it home for analysis. The two anthropologists were in Philadelphia for a conference and a criminal investigator had sought Armelagos’ expertise in piecing together details about dead people by studying their bones.

As Armelagos went through the airport security checkpoint, he turned to Van Gerven, who was next in line, and said loudly, “Be sure and tell them that your wife was alive when you saw her last.”

Then he kept walking, leaving Van Gerven to face the security agent alone.

“My bag goes through the X-ray and you can see this bone in my suitcase,” Van Gerven recalls. “The agent asked, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s a bone.’ He said, ‘Oh,” and lets me go through.”

The story was one of many recounted during a day-long session devoted to the research, mentorship and mischief of Armelagos at the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The session, entitled “Bone to Be Wild,” drew dozens of students and colleagues to Knoxville to celebrate Armelagos’ ongoing career of 50 years.

“I was overwhelmed,” says Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory. “It was surreal, sort of like an out-of-body experience, hearing everyone talk about me.”

Armelagos, left, with student Alan Goodman in 1982 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Former students presented 22 scientific posters describing how Armelagos involved them in pioneering work in wide-ranging topics that changed the field of anthropology, from our understanding of race and racism to the influence of agriculture, diet and stress on the health of individuals and across populations.

While still a graduate student in the 1960s, Armelagos was part of a team that excavated ancient skeletons from Sudanese Nubia, so the bones would not be lost forever when the Nile was dammed. The amount of scholarship done by Armelagos, his students and colleagues over the decades have made the Sudanese Nubians the most studied archeological population in the world.

“One of his main contributions is the marriage of biology with archeology,” says Debra Martin, a co-organizer of the session. “Previously, archeologists would retrieve human remains but then send them off to medical schools or other places interested in the biology. George kept the burials in the archeological context so that as you analyzed the bones, you were also studying a past way of life.”

He uses this approach to ask “some of these really big questions of our time,” Martin says. “He showed how the past sheds light not only on the origins of human conditions, but where we’re going. We see that racism, for example, is as deeply embedded in human behavior as it’s ever been, and yet it’s not in our biology or genes. It’s in the way that we organize ourselves culturally that we create some of these problems around race, nutrition, health and violence.”

Armelagos, in his lab during the 1980s, is still teaching and publishing at 77.

Martin, now a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studied under Armelagos at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Armelagos has mentored over 30 PhD students, and many of them have gone on to become chairs of their departments or deans at their universities.

As a freshman at the University of Utah in 1965, Van Gerven was among Armelagos’ first group of students.

“George was a social force on that campus,” Van Gerven says. He recalls Armelagos holding court in a dining commons area, where he would often stay late into the evening, energized by caffeine and conversations with students.

“You’d see a crowd in the center of the room,” Van Gerven says. “And you’d work your way through to the middle of it, and there would be George. He’s truly interested in everybody and everything.”

When Armelagos moved to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Van Gerven followed for his PhD. Armelagos didn’t just give his graduate students food for thought. He cooked them gourmet meals and turned his home into an extension of the classroom. “He had a huge, long table where he would feed all of us,” Van Gerven says.

The larger the word, the more frequently it was mentioned by former students asked about Armelagos' influence on anthropology. (Survey conducted by Ventura Perez and Heidi Bauer-Clapp of University of Massachusetts, Amherst.)

Armelagos’ knack for demystifying research has set many undergraduates onto life-changing paths.

“The first article we published together came out in 1968, and we’re working on a book right now,” Van Gerven says. “I learned everything from him. He taught me how to think, he taught me how to work and to be passionate. He made me love this stuff.”

Armelagos joined Emory in 1994, and helped solidify the University’s reputation as a national leader in the bio-cultural approach to anthropology. So far, more than 80 of his Emory students have presented papers or published research as undergraduates.

Emory graduate Kristin Harper with Armelagos at "Bone to be Wild." Under his tutelage, Harper published the first phylogenetic approach to the centuries-old debate over the origins of syphilis.

Molly Zuckerman came to Emory for a PhD because she was inspired by Armelagos’ work on the evolution of syphilis. She soon found herself in England, tracking down human remains in the basements of out-of-the-way museums to research the origins of the disease.

“George ushered in a paleopathology movement that’s since become widespread, the idea that you need to orient your work to have a larger meaning than just documenting a particular disease,” Zuckerman says. “If you’re going to mess with the bones of someone’s ancestors, it should benefit contemporary populations. So you need to look at things in an evolutionary and ecological and sociological context.”

A co-organizer of the “Bone to be Wild” session, Zuckerman completed her dissertation “Sex, Society and Syphilis” in 2010 and is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State.

A sucker for kids: Armelagos with Henry, son of Emory anthropologist Craig Hadley.

Armelagos, meanwhile, continues to teach and publish prolifically at 77. “I enjoy what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s energizing. How could I get tired of it?” (Listen to a podcast of Armelagos reading an excerpt from his most recent book, "St. Catherine's Island: The Untold Story of People and Place.")

“In terms of energy and enthusiasm, George can kick my ass on his worst day, and I’m 10 years younger,” says Van Gerven, who recently retired from the University of Colorado. “I’m not sure George is from this planet. But he’s one of the most wonderful and brilliant beings I’ve ever known. And he’s completely crazy.”

Among the secrets to a long and happy career, Armelagos says, is to have fun and not take yourself too seriously. Even after decades in bio-archeology, he still laughs at skeleton jokes.

And, although he has extensively researched the relationship between diet and health, Armelagos is famous for over indulging, both himself and others.

Van Gerven recalls when Armelagos was visiting him and his family years ago and they stopped in a bank. “There was a jar of suckers on the counter, and George grabbed about 15 of them and handed them to my son, Jessie, who was three years old,” Van Gerven says.

Another customer in the bank scolded Armelagos, telling him shouldn't give his kid so much candy. Armelagos replied, ‘He's not my kid.’” The customer said, "Okay."

Skeletons point to Columbus voyage for syphilis origins
Dawn of agriculture took toll on health
Ancient brewers tapped antibiotic secrets
Telling the story of St. Catherine's Island

Credits: Top photo, All others courtesy of George Armelagos.

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