Photo: Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services

Seven Questions With Biological Anthropologist Debra Martin

The UNLV professor on helping the coroner, 'Bones' and studying ancient violence 

What drew you to anthropology?

I was originally interested in women’s health and pediatrics as an undergraduate, [but] a medical-anthropology course just blew my mind. I fell in love with this notion that to really understand people and how they’re doing, you need to understand them in this broad cross-cultural perspective. I took more anthropology classes and decided that pre-med wasn’t what I wanted. What sunk in was that I was more interested in the past, because a lot of our problems today are rooted in the past. That shifted me from medical anthropology to what I am now—bio-archaeology, looking at the biological remains in the ancient past to figure out [what happened].

You and your students work on modern-day crimes, using forensic anthropology and assisting the Clark County Coroner’s Office. How does anthropology, with its focus on the past, help solve crimes today?

We can take human remains where the soft tissue is long gone and we can read from the bones all kinds of things—their age, their sex, their disease, their pathologies, the ways that violence had affected their health. Being able to analyze skeletons is [a skill] that the coroner’s office sometimes needs. Its pathologists are trained in soft-tissue analysis, but they may not know what to do with one long bone if they find it in the desert.

That expertise of reading the bones may or may not come into play if the body’s intact. It’s those non-intact bodies or the remains like what happened on 9/11—that’s what we’re experts at, because that’s what we find in the archaeological record. It’s sort of like Bones.

I was just thinking that.

Well, her character is based on a real forensic/bio-archaeologist, doing exactly what we do, except they enhance a lot and they take a lot of liberties. Almost every week there’s something fabricated and not quite right about what they present, but that’s the general idea. It’s all the same skills. We’re asking the same questions of the bones when we read them.

We can almost give you a life’s history of a person, because encoded in bone and teeth are indicators of what your health was like as a kid growing up, what your nutrition was like as a teenager, what your health was like as a young adult. Bones are this incredibly rich database from which [you learn] something about people that you don’t have a record for and you really want to know about.

“When people migrated to other places, that’s where we start to see some of these head wounds show up. It’s really hard for migrants to enter into new locations.” – Debra Martin

Are your students more interested in helping solve crimes?

I’m more interested in the past. My grad students want to study the past to understand the history of things like violence and disease, but they really want to be of service to the coroner’s office. They want to get jobs at universities where they can also then work part-time and help real people who really need those victims identified. I’m producing Ph.D. students who are trained in that duality. I call them hybrids. They’re part bio-archaeologists, and they’re part forensic anthropologists. And they can, with great ease, move between the ancient world, the historic world and the contemporary modern moment.

If your students are getting experience with newer bones at the coroner’s office, where are they getting experience with older bones?

Most of them go off in the summer and study skeletal remains all over the world to start to get that feel for cultural differences. I want the students to get experience from seeing different skeletal collections of humans from all over the world so that when they get a single bone, they have some reference point. “Is this bone small and very graceful, or is this a person who’s larger and robust?” If you don’t have that comparative database and you get one bone, you really can’t say anything. It takes years for that kind of expertise.

There’s been a push to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. How does anthropology do in that regard?

More female scientists are going into bio-archaeology than males. In the program at UNLV, I’ve consistently had [about] 80 percent females and 10-20 percent males. We need strong role models in women being in science. When I teach bio-archaeology, which is a 400 level course for any anthropology major, it tends to be dominated by females. Forensic sciences, though, interestingly, are still very male-dominated.

You won the 2015 Harry Reid Silver State Research Award earlier this year for your accomplishments, and you’re in New Mexico this summer. What are you working on there?

This is the biggest project that I’m involved in. We’re interested in non-lethal violence [in the ancient Southwest]. We’ve been collecting data from skeletal [remains] from all over the ancient Southwest, trying to get a feel for differences across adult ages, differences between [genders] to see if there’s a pattern of non-lethal violence. When people migrated to other places, that’s where we start to see some of these head wounds show up. It’s really hard for migrants to enter into new locations. Migrants are highly stressed populations and are the subjects of more violence today, as we’re seeing in Syria.

We have this catchphrase in my grad program, “If violence is the answer, what was the question?” Violence is just part of the human repertoire of behaviors. We can start to get these bigger-picture ideas about when violence is used, because it doesn’t just fall from the sky and people decide to be violent. And we’re also going to build that out from the Southwest to thinking in general about why people might use violent means, versus nonviolent means, to an end.