Inside an aged, unassuming laboratory in The University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, a group of scientists look to the dead for answers.
UNM’s Laboratory of Human Osteology is one of the largest in the country, according to Curator Heather Edgar. As a component of the University’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, students and researchers have the opportunity to work with materials many scientists never have access to.
“We house approximately 4,000 sets of human remains and about 6,000 orthodontic records,” said Edgar, who is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology. “We curate remains mostly in the form of skeletons, but we do have some mummies and other materials as well.”
“It’s a unique resource. Very few other universities in the country have these kinds of materials readily available.” – Heather Edgar, Lab curator
The number and variety of human remains in the collection, ranging from prehistoric Native American to modern documented remains, are truly what set the program apart.
“It’s a unique resource. Very few other universities in the country have these kinds of materials readily available,” said Edgar.
“It’s an amazing collection, both in terms of the documented collection and in terms of the Precontact remains,” said Anna Medendorp Rautman, a Ph.D. candidate in Evolutionary Anthropology. “The collections are just phenomenal in terms of teaching, and what we can learn from the remains.”
The lab houses a large number of skeletal remains excavated from various prehistoric Native American sites around New Mexico. Many of them came to UNM after being unearthed by archaeologists at UNM and other institutions prior to 1960. Other Native American remains are curated at the University for federal agencies, like the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Laboratory of Human Osteology is in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and has worked with several local Native American groups to return remains to tribal lands. Dr. Edgar, one of seven members of the national NAGPRA Review Committee, takes the Lab’s NAGPRA responsibility very seriously.
Graduate students or visiting researchers are able to use the collection to examine skeletal manifestations of particular diseases like cancer or osteoporosis. The documented remains can also be used as a comparative sample to help identify unknown remains in forensic investigations.
“If you ever watch a crime show like Bones or CSI, they’ll say things like ‘this skeleton is male between 35 and 45 years old.’ To know that piece of information, a real scientist must have a documented, comparative sample,” Edgar said. “To be able to say, is this male or female, means that we’ve looked at many skeletons that are male and female and noted what the differences are between them.”
It is through this work that Edgar and her team are occasionally asked to assist the Office of the Medical Investigator with unsolved cases, including the high profile ‘West Mesa Murders’ in 2009.
Along with these practical applications, Edgar said the remains are also used for research into contemporary human variation and evolution.
“If you want to understand some things about human evolution, it’s required that you understand contemporary human variation,” Edgar said. “What are the factors that shape the bodies of people today? How are they reacting to the environment? How are people interacting with each other and how is that reflected in biological remains?”
It’s in answering these questions, Edgar said, that scientists use the remains at UNM to continue to understand how evolution works and how it has shaped the human body.
The Laboratory of Human Osteology is housed inside UNM’s anthropology building, one of the oldest buildings on campus, serving as the original Student Union from 1937 to 1959.
The space the lab occupies inside that building dates back to the 1970s, according to Edgar, and doesn’t currently meet the needs of the world-class researchers and collection housed there.
“At the time that they built the lab they did a fantastic job in squeezing a lot of use into a small space,” Edgar said. “But, we’ve never had a major retrofit.”
There are several areas inside the lab where the flooring has come up to create a tripping hazard for students and researchers. The overhead lighting is also not ideal for an observational science, where being able to see what you’re doing is very important.
But, the single biggest expense of a potential remodel, Edgar said, would be remedying the current staircase that provides access to the collection space above the lab.
“Right now, it’s really a marine ladder,” Edgar explained. “It’s extremely steep, you cannot carry material up and down it and it prevents us from allowing more than three people at a time in our collection space. It’s simply not safe.”
Securing funding for the renovations is something Edgar has had high on her list for many years, but hasn’t been a reality, until now.
After receiving requests for funding from several graduate research facilities around campus, the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) selected The Laboratory of Human Osteology to be its funding priority during the 2016 New Mexico State Legislative Session.
“GPSA has been in great in trying to secure this funding,” said Edgar. “We’ve gone up to Santa Fe with them and I know how hard they’ve worked on our behalf to talk to legislators and encourage them to support the funds for this lab.”
“The GPSA Lobby Committee introduced students to legislators where they explained the conditions of the space,” said GPSA President Texanna Martin. “The legislators were very generous to help with funding for a new staircase allowing more students to safely access the space and, in effect, creating a new lab space that will further the great research and education done by the students and faculty of the Human Osteology Lab.”
Martin said this is the first time the GPSA went directly to students to figure out where resources and efforts could be directed.
Medendorp Rautman, who is also the chief lab assistant for Human Osteology, submitted the request to GPSA and showed representatives what they do in the lab and how the conditions can sometimes hinder their ability to do research.
“I love the opportunities that I have here at UNM, I’m so grateful to be able to work with Dr. Edgar and it’s just been an amazing experience,” said Medendorp Rautman. “We’re so thankful that GPSA selected us for their state funding request and can’t wait to work in this lab once the renovations are completed.”
GPSA said the the legislature has approved the funding request, so now, it's a matter of planning to get all the renovations started.
For more information, visit UNM’s Laboratory of Human Osteology.