Research opportunities in Bioanthropology Lab teach students about health, human origins

By Carol Nelson, Office of Communications and Marketing



The Bioanthropology Lab at Auburn University provides hands-on research opportunities for students investigating human origins and biological diversity over time.

Led by Kristrina Shuler, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts, the lab houses a collection from the Newton Plantation in southern Barbados as part of a collaboration with the Barbados Museum. The collection is on loan from the museum and was excavated in the late 1990s by Shuler and a team of researchers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Syracuse University.

"Researchers around the world continue to investigate exciting questions through the Newton Plantation series," Shuler said. "We are fortunate to have access to this collection at Auburn University and sincerely appreciate the continued support of the Barbados Museum."

Shuler's work focuses on ancient health, in particular nutrition, disease and quality of life of populations from the past few thousand years. Her research program explores the biological consequences of social inequalities in late prehistoric and early historic archaeological contexts.

"I've focused on populations in several areas of the world at different time periods, primarily on enslaved Africans in the West Indies from the island of Barbados and also on Native American populations here in our own backyard in Alabama Moundville and surrounding sites," said Shuler.

The Newton Plantation was a relatively large sugar plantation that was in operation from the 17th-19th centuries. The site was originally excavated in the 1970s by researchers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and the work conducted by Shuler and her team is a continuation of that, allowing them to focus on new questions about the enslaved population who lived and worked there.

"Health is something that is very much under-documented or undocumented for this enslaved population and throughout the West Indies in general," Shuler said. "So, looking at the bones and the teeth of the individuals can give us some clues about infectious disease markers, nutritional indicators, demographic profiles and lots of things we can't get from historical records, particularly for women and children."

Students in the program work with the Newton Plantation series alongside Shuler and participate in other research projects as well. Projects have made it possible for students to intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the National Archives in New York City.

"Students have focused on health and social relations of slavery, how infectious disease plays out in the body and how the biological markers of infection might differ between individuals who worked on a sugar plantation like Newton versus those who worked at an industrial site like the Catoctin Iron Works, which was another population of enslaved Africans that collection is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History," Shuler said. "We've had at least one student who focused on infection issues, and we have one student who's focused on non-metric skeletal traits, specifically looking at genetic markers in the teeth, to give us some insight on whether individuals in the population may have been first generation enslaved Africans or later admixed individuals that had been living on the plantation for a longer period of time. So along with the health issues, there also are the questions of ancestry and diversity that the students are exploring."

Students in the program also learn from an array of skeletal and dental reproductions from contemporary populations, forensics cases and early hominids.

"It's important to understand what our historical circumstances are," Shuler said. "This work gives something back to the island of Barbados and really, to all of us, when we can better understand our histories. It also gives us insight into the evolutionary significance of diseases and illnesses, which change over time with regard to environmental issues, population density and political economy. All these things have enormous consequences, so understanding those individual historical circumstances can give us a lot of insight into how health is influenced and affected by sociopolitical and environmental changes over time."

Last Updated: May 1, 2013

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