Biological Anthropology is the study of human variation, adaptation, and evolution. At the University of Georgia, our biological anthropology faculty study how nutrition, ecology, disease, poverty and vulnerability shape— often dramatically— human growth and development, human well-being, and evolutionary processes. They examine human biological and behavioral variation through behavioral ecology, biocultural human biology, medical anthropology, bioarchaeology and biochemical analyses. Currently, faculty and students are pursuing several lines of research. One trajectory is to better understand the relationship between changing socio-ecological environments and human physiology, health, and wellbeing in resource-poor communities in the past and present. A second trajectory uses cutting edge technology to reconstruct diets from the tissue chemistry of humans and non-human primates. A third trajectory seeks to understand how natural selection and cultural inheritance influence human behavioral phenotypes.
Faculty members & their research interests
Director, Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry Laboratory
I study human diet as a link between biology, culture and environment, focusing on stable isotope analysis of archaeological populations. I am working primarily with European skeletal samples, and am beginning new research studying diet and stress among modern humans and non-human primates. The Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry Laboratory is equipped to facilitate a wide variety of sample preparation for isotopic analyses. Some current projects are described below.
Diet change in Eastern Europe: With long-term collaborators based at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland and Vilnius University in Lithuania, I am investigating diet patterns among the sociopolitical elite in what are today Poland and Lithuania. Skeletons we are examining - many of whose individual identities are known - were buried in churches during the 15-18th c. AD, a time when Poland and Lithuania were joined into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and governed by a monarchy kept strictly in check by a noble class. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has been interpreted as a precursor to a modern democracy and was a unique system in Europe around this time. Stemming from our interests in political ecology, we will examine health and diet in this interesting sociopolitical context. The work complements previous and other ongoing investigations into diet of rural and peasant populations in Poland, allowing us to further explore the influences of status on human diet in the past. Undergraduate students are involved in the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope work for this project; research is currently underway and intended to continue in 2013-2014.
Migration and Greek Colonization: With collaborators at the University of Northern Colorado and institutions in Albania, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria, I am examining the role of migration in the context of ancient Greek colonization through strontium and stable oxygen isotope analysis. These techniques can identify “locals” from “non-locals” in the colony cemeteries, toward better characterizing the extent of migration, and who was migrating (men, women, children?). The isotopic analyses are intended to be used in tandem with bioarchaeological estimations of stress and health at both colonies and mother-cities, estimations of cultural affiliation through mortuary analysis, and with ancient DNA evidence for ancestry. This project is ongoing from 2013-2017.
Animal Use in Historic Charleston: Graduate students in the lab are currently researching the management and distribution of animals in historic Charleston by studying the isotopic signatures of cattle bones from various settings throughout the city. In addition to varying with types of foods consumed, stable carbon and nitrogen isotope signatures also vary depending on environmental factors such as proximity to the sea, forest cover, and land management techniques. Thus, stable isotope signatures may reflect the “catchment zones” of the animals that were brought to Charleston, helping us to understand past land management strategies, and how rural and urban areas were economically integrated in the American Southeast during the 18th century. Both lab training and interpretation of data are part of this collaborative project. Work is currently underway, and more is planned for 2013-2014.
Physiology and Human Health
The Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry laboratory is equipped to work with a variety of biological materials. A particular area of interest, in addition to diet and mobility in the past, is the application of stable isotope analyses to modern human populations to understand physiology, stress and disease. One study currently underway examines the extent and duration of nutritional stress with pregnancy using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in hair, including bulk protein as well as individual amino acids. Students interested in this line of research should contact Dr. Reitsema for the 2014-2015 academic year.
Primate Weaning and Dietary Ecology
Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis can reveal diet and weaning among living non-human primates. Current undergraduate research in the lab involves sampling blood serum from captive rhesus monkeys to understand how rank, stress, and infant sex are related to the duration of breast-feeding. Ultimately, long-term effects of early versus late weaning can be explored among the captive populations with collaborators using data from this study.
Director, Laboratory of Health and Human Biology
I study how human health and disease are shaped by the environment, biology, and culture. As a biological and medical anthropologist, my work has focused on human adaptation, understanding how people avoid disease in stressful environments, and the effects of environmental and sociocultural change on health and nutrition. While much of my work has examined on how individual and household conditions may redistribute infectious disease burdens, I am also beginning research on and childhood growth, diet, and nutrition.
Current research projects:
Nutrition, health, and life history: My long-term collaborative research in Bolivia investigates the health and nutritional consequences of markets and other ecological, social, and economic changes in the Amazon. I have focused on understanding how rapid cultural and economic changes are associated with common infectious disease, child growth patterns, and nutrition among an indigenous group, Tsimane’, living in lowland Bolivia. Specific questions have included how wealth and subsistence patterns are related to parasitism and how early life nutrition and growth patterns can shape downstream health and disease. Ongoing research continues to investigate the consequences of increased reliance of purchased foods on nutrition and disease patterns.
Zoonotic diseases and deforestation: Deforestation may be driven by economic, social, and political motivations, but land use change also provides the context for interactions between humans, plants, insects, and animals in the environment. In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Georgia, the CDC, and the GORGAS Institute in Panama, this project focuses on how social and economic factors put people and animals at risk for Chagas disease, American Leishmaniasis, and other understudied infectious diseases with a larger goal of considering the links between social and environmental systems that lead to human disease.
Migration and nutrition in the United States: When people move between countries, they often experiences changes in health and nutrition. This new research project draws on a life history perspective to consider how early life environment may be linked to downstream health and examines how shifts in food, social support, nutrition, and medicine in the U.S. are related to mother-child health among women who have moved to the U.S. Specific research questions include how parents cope with illness and perceive the growth and health of their children.
For additional information about research and students, please visit the Biological Anthropology Lab Complex website.
Lab: Behavioral Ecology and Economic Decisions Laboratory
My research addresses human decision-making and behavior in an ecological and evolutionary context, with specific focus on subsistence in rural populations. My students and I are concerned with two stages of analysis. The first is how individuals make decisions, including processes of perception, evaluation, emotion, and social learning, as explored through experimental economic methods. The second stage is the behavioral outcomes of decisions, including food production and household livelihood strategies, as explored through ethnographic methods.