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21st-century tech reveals mysteries of sixth-century labor

July 8, 2019

ASU alumna combines motion capture technology and bioarcheology to see how repetitive manual work alters our skeletal structures

School of Human Evolution and Social Change alumna Sara Becker has one particularly clear memory from her undergraduate years at Arizona State University: the time she nearly ran over Donald Johanson — founding director of the Institute of Human Origins and renowned discoverer of the Lucy fossil — with her bicycle.

“He stepped out in front of me as I was biking past the Social Sciences building, and I thought, ‘Oh no, if I hit Don Johanson, I’ll never get to be an anthropologist!’” she said. “Luckily, we both have fast reflexes, and no one was injured.”

photo of Becker riding a gondola above La Paz

Becker rides in a teleferico, a gondola lift, above La Paz, Bolivia. Photo courtesy of Sara Becker

Despite her fears, Becker did go on to become a successful anthropologist in her own right. Today, she studies the Tiwanaku civilization, which thrived in the Andes region from A.D. 500–1100. As a bioarchaeologist, she looks for the traces that everyday activities left on human skeletal remains. For societies like the Tiwanaku that didn’t have writing systems, the body can speak volumes about how ancient people lived.

To better understand the physical movements that accompany traditional labor, and thus the signs those repeated movements would leave on a skeleton, she has turned to an unexpected tool — motion capture technology.

The technique first grabbed her attention as an undergraduate student, when movies and video games began using it more widely. So later, when she started looking for ways to gather data on movement, it readily came to mind.

“It seemed like a natural fit,” Becker said, especially because it has become more common and less expensive since it was first introduced.

While Becker can’t record the motions of Tiwanaku people who lived long ago, she can record their descendants, the indigenous Aymara people who live in Bolivia and Peru. Many still do traditional labor that may be similar to that of their ancestors.

To capture motion in the field, she and her research assistant interview subjects about the types of activities they perform and then invite them to the motion capture lab. If they agree, the researchers pay for the subjects’ time and materials and have them demonstrate their tasks.

“We ask the person to wear little motion capture dots, which kind of look like tiny ping pong balls,” Becker said.

photo of Aymara woman weaving

An Aymara woman wearing motion capture dots weaves a narrow textile out of alpaca wool, using the bottom legs of a kitchen stool. Photo courtesy of Sara Becker. 

Ten cameras arranged in a circle around each subject record the person and dots from 360 degrees. Later, Becker uses a special software to create models of the subjects’ movements.

Though she is in the early stages of her research, she is already learning more about how specific tools must be used and the ways in which a person must move — or even stay still — in these types of labor, which aids her understanding of the skeletal evidence.

She hopes the new motion capture data will help draw clearer connections between some of the labor of Aymara people and that of their Tiwanaku ancestors, as well as create a more robust visual and verbal record of experts working at their crafts, such as weaving or ceramics, for future generations.

Her biggest takeaway so far is that this ancient society had a surprisingly egalitarian approach to labor — a finding which may hold clues to how members of our own complex society can better collaborate on large projects.

“My research has shown that people organized labor in ways we don’t normally associate with traditional, state-level societies,” Becker said. “Tiwanaku people likely labored reciprocally, sharing the major agricultural work, and were not conscripted or enslaved into labor.”

Becker credits her undergraduate courses at ASU — such as Human Osteology and Death and Dying in a Cross-cultural Perspective — and faculty mentors such as Associate Professor Brenda Baker, with creating a solid foundation for the rest of her scholarly career.

“All of these classes have translated into entry-level expertise that I built upon and gave me ideas to pursue in my own research,” she said. “I also met a great number of people, both friends and professors, who guided me and gave good advice.”

Her own words of wisdom for current students echo that same guidance.

“I suggest practical experience, getting to know some of your professors and trying things hands-on to see what you’re good at,” she said.

And maybe, if you can manage it, avoid running over famous scientists.

Top photo: The Aymara weaver's finished textile product features a traditional pattern. Photo courtesy of Sara Becker

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU offers range of courses for hobby beekeepers

July 8, 2019

Honeybees serve as pollinators for the majority of the world’s crops, and their global decline threatens the world’s food supply.

However, hobby beekeepers have been helping to combat this danger by installing hives in their backyards. According to “Bee Culture” magazine, there are now more than 120,000 hobby beekeepers and a 3% rise in honeybee colonies in the United States. ASU continuing education beekeeping courses Cahit Ozturk, manager of the Honey Bee Research Lab on ASU's Polytechnic Campus, explains how to care for a colony during a beekeeping course. Several one- and two-day courses, from beginner to advanced, are offered this fall. Photo courtesy Cahit Ozturk/ASU Download Full Image

There are lots of factors to consider before starting a bee colony and lots to learn once you have it going. So, Arizona State University offers several continuing professional education courses on hobby beekeeping at the Honey Bee Research Lab on the Polytechnic campus, led by the School of Life Sciences manager of the facility, Cahit Ozturk.

The classes, which are one day for introductory classes and two days for advanced classes, are held on weekends during September and October and offer students a range of topics as well as the opportunity to take advantage of the equipment at one of the largest bee laboratories in the U.S.

“We have a really good research environment here, so when it’s empty, I say we are wasting our resources,” Ozturk said. “We should share this with other people.”

For those with no experience, Ozturk offers introduction to beekeeping and hobby beekeeping courses that teach the basics: how to start, where to get your colony, when to start, how to check for diseases and parasites, how to harvest your honey and how to take care of your colonies.

More experienced beekeepers can take advantage of the advanced classes, such as instrumental insemination of queen bees, royal jelly production and queen rearing.

One of the biggest concerns of hobby beekeepers, especially in the south, is that their queens can breed with Africanized bees, making them more aggressive and difficult to handle.

“You need to change your queens every one or two years because young females lay more eggs and keep the colonies strong and productive,” Ozturk said. “Otherwise, they will change the queen on their own and mate in flight, and we can’t control that. Africanized bees are good pollinators and producers, but they are very aggressive. We have very gentle Italian bees here, but the only way to keep those breeding lines pure is to control the mating.”

However, inseminating a bee can be difficult and requires special, expensive equipment. Ozturk said that before beekeepers invest in this equipment, they want to be sure they can use it properly. Because of this, Ozturk invested personal funds in purchasing equipment for the advanced classes, allowing students to learn the skills and test the equipment before buying their own.

Of the students who took the class last semester, nearly half left with an inseminated queen to add to their colony.

“Whether they were hobbyist or commercial beekeepers, Dr. Ozturk’s teaching method was well in tune with all of the people in the class," said Ed Russell, who traveled from the Florida Keys to take the course. "He provided assistance and instruction at the level needed for all and sincerely wanted you to leave his course having learned the techniques and skill necessary to be successful at instrumental insemination. After the two days were over, Dr. Ozturk emphasized that he was available anytime to answer questions and provide assistance. I’ve never attended an ASU course before, but I do feel like I’m part of an ASU family now.”

Visit ASU Beekeeping Courses for more information.

Broadening beekeeping education: Courses offered fall 2019

Queen Rearing

When: Sept. 28-29

Who: Hobby beekeepers with more than one year of experience.

What: Learn to graft larvae for queen rearing, handle virgin and mated queens, mark and introduce queen to colony and basic beekeeping techniques.

Cost: $200.

Instrumental Insemination of Queen Bees

When: Oct. 5-6

Who: Experienced beekeepers and researchers. Limited equipment available. Must provide own equipment or reserve equipment in advance.

What: Learn how to use the tools of instrumental insemination, rear queens and drones, collect semen from drones, insemination techniques and evaluate success of insemination.

Cost: $300

Introduction to Beekeeping

When: Oct. 12

Who: Anyone interested in starting beekeeping.

What: Learn basic honeybee biology, how to start and maintain a honeybee colony and how to address common challenges for beekeepers.

Cost: $50

Royal Jelly Production

When: Oct. 26-27

Who: Hobby beekeepers with more than one year of experience.

What: Learn how to graft larvae for royal jelly production, use plastic and wax queen cells, prepare queen cells for royal jelly production and harvest and store royal jelly.

Cost: $200

Introduction to Beekeeping

When: Nov. 2-3

Who: Anyone interested in learning about bees or beekeeping.

What: Learn technical beekeeping skills and applying techniques to maintain healthy bee colonies as well as hands-on practice handling and managing a bee colony with the European colonies at the Honey Bee Research Lab.

Cost: $200

Melinda Weaver

Communications specialist, School of Life Sciences