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Alumnus builds on mentor's legacy in dental anthropology

Richard Scott
February 27, 2013

Physical anthropologists can tell a lot about a person – or an entire line of people – by examining their teeth. Because genetics influence tooth traits, the size and shape of roots and crowns and a variety of dental features can lead researchers to important information that can help identify individual remains or link groups of remains to particular population groups.

Perhaps the best regarded system for grading varying dental complexity was developed several years ago at Arizona State University by Christy Turner, a professor emeritus in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Richard Scott, one of Turner’s protégés, helped tweak the dental classification system before moving on from ASU with his doctorate. He continues to carry forward what he learned at his alma mater, including editing a forthcoming publication based on his mentor’s work.

Scott began his career at ASU in 1964. He was one of the first anthropology students in a program with only seven faculty members. “It seemed like the department was adding a new faculty member every year during my time in Tempe,” Scott recounts. When he reached his senior year, his plans of going to graduate school for archaeology were drastically changed by a “young charismatic professor” by the name of Turner. After taking several of his classes, Scott gained Turner as a mentor who recommended him as a candidate for a National Institutes of Health training fellowship in genetics directed by professor emeritus Charles M. Woolf.

Later, Scott would become the third doctorate to graduate from the Department of Anthropology and the first to do so with a degree in physical anthropology. “Little did I know that the department would develop into one of the preeminent schools of anthropology in the country,” he says, commenting on the unit’s evolution into a highly successful transdisciplinary school eight years ago. “ASU has literally been transformed from a minor player in the discipline to what some may argue is the best department – sorry, school – in the United States.” 

Scott’s dissertation looked at the dental morphology of Native Americans in the Southwest, and firmly placed him in the field of dental anthropology. “I give all the credit to Christy Turner for starting me down the dental path,” Scott says. “As it turned out, my dissertation was more seminal than I realized, in terms of the conclusions I reached on dental genetics, for the classificatory standards I developed as a graduate student, and the use of dental morphology to analyze microdifferentiation at the regional level. So what I did was basically put in a few windows and doors on the framework Christy laid down in his dissertation.”

Prior to the development of Turner’s system, dental anthropologists used Al Dahlberg’s standard reference plaques, developed in 1956. While these plaques are fine, they are limited in number. Turner expanded the original set of Dahlberg standards by adding many more crown traits and also added root traits for the first time. “ASUDAS is definitely Christy Turner's baby, but I am an uncle,” Scott says. “Most recent papers are based on this system and results from around the world now make sense. Researchers are now on the same page thanks to ASUDAS.”

Scott and Turner have published extensively on the subject, including collaborating on a well-received book on dental morphology in 1997. Now, Scott is preparing for the release of a new publication he edited with Joel D. Irish, another Turner student and ASU alumnus, based on the uses and success of Turner’s dental classification system. Published this month, "Anthropological Perspectives on Tooth Morphology: Genetics, Evolution, Variation," focuses on applied dental research and features several of the world’s premier dental morphologists weighing in on the concepts and methods presented in Scott and Turner’s first book on dental morphology.

“Every chapter in the new book reflects how Christy’s work on teeth was a catalyst for systematic studies in not only human populations throughout the world but also fossil hominids and primates,” Scott says. Although he claims that he and Christy “disagree on many things” and “have had some great debates in the past,” Scott’s prevailing feeling is one of gratitude, and he considers the book an homage to Turner.

Presently, Scott chairs the anthropology department at the University of Nevada, Reno, and is a professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Although he is a diverse and prolific physical anthropologist, with research interests ranging from Alaska’s Inuit to Nevada’s Donner Party to the Norse peoples of Greenland, his heart is still in the Southwest, an area he considers a “laboratory of anthropology with its rich and varied panoply of native populations.”

Written by Isaac Gilbert, School of Human Evolution and Social Change