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Jane Buikstra earns Regents' distinction

September 22, 2009


Editor’s Note: This profile is one in a series that highlights Arizona State University’s 2008 and 2009 Regents’ Professors. The Regents’ Professor honor is the most prestigious faculty award at the university. Click here to view the complete list of awardees.

How did one of the pioneers in the fields of bioarchaeology and paleopathology find her path in life?

“Serendipity and some fortuitous choices,” says Jane Buikstra, the recently named Regents’ Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and the director of the school’s Center for Bioarchaeological Research. “I always collected and catalogued things as a child. My dad, who was a doctor, died when I was little, so I didn’t really have a mentor for my education. I was one of those who was always interested in everything; I was still changing majors in my junior year.”

Buikstra ended up designing her own anthropology major – a combination of biology and archaeology.

“I thought I was going to be an archaeologist, but was seduced by biology.”

In addition to being a Regents’ Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Buikstra is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2009, she was named to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History advisory board. Considered a pioneer in the field of bioarchaeology, including paleopathology, as well as someone who has advanced forensic anthropology, last year she was presented with two prestigious lifetime achievement awards: the T. Dale Stewart Award from the Physical Anthropology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ Charles Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award. Next year she will receive the Society for American Archeology’s Fryxell Award for distinction in interdisciplinary study.

Buikstra received her undergraduate degree in anthropology from DePauw University in 1967, and was mentored by Charles Merbs in her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Merbs later joined the anthropology faculty at ASU and is a professor emeritus in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Buikstra was the first to use the term “bioarchaeology” in a 1977 journal article to describe a field that emphasizes understanding the remains of past people in the context of their environment and societies. She is also credited with establishing high standards for scientific rigor in the field of forensic anthropology.

Her career of accomplishments and service hardly seem possible for one person, one lifetime. She has served as president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association and the Center for American Archeology. Buikstra appears to have been on every major editorial board, review committee and executive board in the field. She has chaired more than 50 doctoral student committees, published hundreds of books, chapters, articles, reviews and reports, and served as an investigator on nearly 50 funded research projects. She is a highly sought-after lecturer, with a busy schedule that takes her around the world – this year includes keynote addresses in Finland, Argentina and Ireland.

Buikstra is passionate about bringing the deep time perspective of paleopathology to bear on present-day understanding of diseases and their evolution.

“There are conditions today that are said to have resulted from our current lifestyle – osteoporosis, for example,” Buikstra says. “But we can’t really evaluate that assertion without studying osteoporosis across earlier human groups.”

Much of her research examines the evolution of tuberculosis, an ancient disease that is on the rise again worldwide.

“There seem to be cycles of disease that are inexplicable. We aim to understand how cycling can place certain populations at greater risk of infectious disease.”

Another area that is central to her life’s mission: helping people appreciate how fragile the environment is and how human activity on the Earth over time affects others. At the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Ill., Buikstra heads a field school and research laboratory open to people from all walks of life who are interested in learning about archaeology and the unwritten history of life in America.

Presently, Buikstra is encouraging projects on landscape evolution in deep time, in relationship to today’s pollutants in riverine and agricultural contexts. Similarly, levee construction may actually encourage flooding in certain situations. To fully evaluate these requires the time depth offered by archaeology. 

These days, Buikstra receives endless requests to participate on committees and review boards. It’s not surprising considering her scholarly success, but also her down-to-earth demeanor, charm and wit. As so often happens with academic icons, such demands can quickly take over their lives. She admits that she is starting to say “no” more than she used to.

“I’m a researcher and educator,” she says. “If I can’t do that and feel that I’m doing a good job, I simply won’t be happy.”

What does a Regents’ Professor of Bioarchaeology like to do for fun?

“I like to cook – but I don’t do desserts. My specialty is a paella that requires taking out a small loan to buy all the ingredients.”

Currently, Buikstra is co-designing field school curricula, with an emphasis on advanced training in archaeology, for the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Ill., which received the 2009 Society for American Archaeology’s Excellence in Public Education Award. She is also working on an introductory text in forensic anthropology, a global history of paleopathology, and a volume that links her earlier bioarchaeology with contemporary social theory. And she is moving into the next phase of a research project that uses the humanities and social, life and physical sciences to explore the construction of ancient Andean identity.

For information about opportunities to work with Buikstra at the Center of American Archeology, visit the Web site

Jodi Guyot,
(480) 727-8739
School of Human Evolution and Social Change