Ancient DNA analysis can reveal insight into past populations on many levels. Unfortunately, accessing the osseous labyrinth inside the petrous bone, which has the highest concentration of endogenous DNA of any skeletal element, creates a problem for analysis: It requires intact skeletal remains.
PhD candidate Kendra Sirak has developed a new technique to access the osseous labyrinth without the damage done by established techniques. She details the process in her paper published in BioTechniques and has taught the technique to experts in ten different countries, which has allowed them to perform the procedure independently.
Dr. Molly Zuckerman (PhD, 2010), Associate Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at Mississippi State University, has been making the news lately. After 7,000 bodies were found buried under the University of Mississippi Medical Center, she has been involved in exhuming and studying the skeletal remains and the asylum’s health records.
The cemetery was part of the Mississippi State Asylum, which was operational from 1855 to 1935, an era in which psychiatric asylums were common throughout the United States. Dr. Zuckerman has drawn conclusions about the health of the asylum patients from the archives of the asylum’s discharge records. These records are allowing Zuckerman and other historians and anthropologists in the Asylum Hill Research Consortium to form a database of individuals who were buried there. They have received many inquiries from family members about ancestors whom they think died at the asylum, and the Consortium’s hope is that people will be able to readily access the information.
Zuckerman also hopes to exhume more of the bodies in order to learn more about health and the diagnosis of madness in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. The bones could provide information about the diseases, malnutrition, or living conditions of the patients. Zuckerman’s research focuses on the bio-social determinants of health inequalities. Her dissertation at Emory was an evolutionary, social, and ecological history of syphilis in England. Since syphilis was a common cause of insanity, Zuckerman’s expertise positions her well to conduct research at this site.
Several master’s students at Mississippi State have already analyzed the exhumed bones to make conclusions about health. One student used genetic sequencing to reconstruct oral bacteria from skeletons. Another student studied tooth enamel to make conclusions about nutritional deprivation and severe stress. Yet another student found evidence of pellagra, a disease caused by Vitamin B deficiency, in both asylum records and skeletons.
The stories of the patients buried at the Mississippi State Asylum are sure to unfold in the next few years, and we look forward to Dr. Zuckerman’s contributions.
In a recent eLife article, Dr. Jessica Thompson discusses how the newly discovered Homo naledi creates more questions than it answers in terms of the evolution of humans. The new discovery certainly illustrates that the evolution of the modern human did not occur in the straight line that we once thought.
This article also made news in the Guardian.
Emory Magazine reported about several Emory Global Health Institute projects, including the work of then graduate student Bonnie Kaiser (PhD, Emory Anthropology; MPH) on mental health issues in Haiti.
Read the full Emory Magazine article.
An article featured on NPR discusses the complications that arise when rodents are commonly used to test medications intended for humans: namely, a disappointingly high failure rate once medications are tested on human subjects.
Todd Preuss, an anthropologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University and Associated Professor of Anthropology, indicates that rats were initially studied to learn about rats. At some point they transitioned to “prototypical mammals.” Dr. Preuss points out that rodents have not only developed quite differently from humans, but the specific test subjects can also be described as lacking genetic diversity.
Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz (Emory Anthropology) and Dr. Aaron Stutz (Emory Anthropology at Oxford), along with Chantel White (Penn Museum) and a team of graduate and undergraduate students are preparing for their second round of excavations at the Mughr el-Hamamah site in Jordan. Dr. Nilsson Stutz talks about the well-preserved paleolithic plant remains at the site and describes the possibilities:
“We hope that the careful recovery of these unique remains and the following analysis of them will allow us to better understand how palaeolithic hunters and gatherers used plants for food, shelter and tool making during the period that coincides with the replacement of neanderthals by Anatomically Modern Humans in Western Eurasia. This is a very rare site, and we really think our work will be able to fill in some gaps in our understanding of palaeolithic hunter gatherer ecology, subsistence, and the demographic changes at this crucial point in human evolution.”
The project is entering its final stages of fundraising. For more information or to help crowd fund, please visit this website.