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The dead tell tales to bioarchaeology pioneer

Regents' Professor Jane Buikstra
April 03, 2013

Nearly 40 years ago, Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Jane E. Buikstra used the term “bioarchaeology” to describe the study of human remains in an archaeological context. In the time since, this field – which can provide insight into ancient diets, disease evolution, climate change and long-lost cultures, among other things – has become a vigorous discipline that has produced great finds and illustrious practitioners.

Buikstra remains at the forefront of the field and was recently feted with the publication of a volume of essays titled "The Dead Tell Tales: Essays in Honor of Jane E. Buikstra."

The idea for the collection grew from a symposium at the 71st annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Called “The Dead Tell Tales: Jane E. Buikstra and Narratives of the Past,” the session involved a host of Buikstra’s colleagues and former graduate students coming together to examine the impact of her work and mentorship. It was organized by Maria Cecilia Lozada and Barra O’Donnabhain, the editors of the new book.

As young scholars, Lozada, who is Peruvian, and O’Donnabhain, who is Irish, were inspired personally and professionally by Buikstra. “When we started our academic careers, bioarchaeology was very much in its infancy in our countries,” says Lozada. “Jane’s approach, combining archaeology and human osteology was very appealing. We both have seen disciplines based on descriptions and medicalized approaches to the past that were quite unsatisfactory to us.”

They realized that, while Buikstra’s publications were numerous, there was not a single tome that explored the impact of her ground-breaking work in anthropology. O’Donnabhain says, “This volume highlights the vibrant academic discipline that she founded. The fact that many of her students are contributors to the book makes this publication especially valuable. This is all about her legacy.”

Charles Stanish, director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, invited Lozada and O’Donnabhain to submit a manuscript to the Cotsen Press, which sent it to print. Stanish will be announcing its publication at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Hawaii this month.

The work begins with a discussion of Buikstra’s general contributions to anthropology and is followed by several texts, most of which revolve around case studies, and are organized by region. The contributors are colleagues or former students or both, like Gordon Rakita.

“As a former student, colleague and friend of Jane’s, I was honored to be asked to contribute to this festschrift for her,” Rakita says. “Jane’s role in establishing bioarchaeology as a growing, exciting field in anthropology is without equal. The extent to which a new generation of bioarchaeologists is able to apply new data, methods and theories to anthropological questions about the human condition is a direct result of Jane’s work.”

Rakita’s contribution to the book is a quantitative review of Buikstra’s publishing record. “Over the years, she’s done similar studies of the literature for given topics,” he explains. “In at least one case, I can recall being sent as her research assistant to gather citation data for one of these publications. So when I was asked to write in honor of Jane, I thought what a great idea to do a similar analysis of her publications. And while I thought I knew her body of work pretty well, as I entered and analyzed data, I was reminded of how foundational and wide-reaching her publications in bioarchaeology are.”

Like Rakita, George Milner is a former student turned colleague, and another contributor to "The Dead Tell Tales." Milner studied under Buikstra at Northwestern University 30 years ago. He recalls that when Buikstra was just starting out, she wrote an important piece on fracture frequencies in non-human primates, specifically of macaques. He says, “Her work still stands as an important contribution to the literature, as it is one of the few such papers on a sizeable sample of non-human primates. Having a shelf-life of over 30 years is a remarkable achievement in science today, and it underscores the importance of Jane’s many contributions to the field of bioarchaeology.”

Much of Buikstra’s more recent work has been aimed at understanding how humans and diseases co-evolved over millennia and has shone a spotlight on the re-emerging global menace of tuberculosis. Currently, Buikstra is collaborating with genetic anthropologist Anne Stone, a fellow professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, in defining the molecular nature of the ancient American mycobacterial disease that presents as TB.

She is also actively engaged in the study of monumental architecture and social memory in the ancient Midwest. Most of her other research involves projects in the Andes, in the Mayan world and in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As if that were not enough, Buikstra has taken on another role: founding director of the International Journal of Paleopathology, which is playing a key role in shaping that field.

“Though I knew it was coming, the book’s arrival touched me deeply,” says Buikstra of "The Dead Tell Tales." “I am honored by the efforts of the editors and contributors in organizing this wonderful tribute.”

Buikstra is a board member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She directs the Center for Bioarchaeological Research at ASU in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and runs an archaeology field school and research laboratory at the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Ill. To date, she has supervised 44 completed Ph.D. dissertations, evidence of her commitment to teaching and research, as well as her influence in the anthropological world.