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Biological Anthropology

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

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Laurie Reitsema

Assistant Professor

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.

Bioarchaeology

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.

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Susan Tanner

Assistant Professor

Director, Laboratory of Health and Human Biology

I am interested in understanding how people maintain health and avoid disease in stressful environments and how human biological variation is shaped by diverse social, cultural, and ecological factors. My research is focused on anthropological approaches to the study of infectious disease, human growth, and medical and nutritional anthropology. I am currently exploring the ecology of early child growth in Bolivia and beginning new work on how culture change shapes health and nutrition in and around Athens, Georgia.

 

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Bram Tucker

Associate Professor

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.