Roth Wins Thesis Award for Urraca Man Research

Aaron Roth

Aaron Roth

Las Vegas, NM — New Mexico Highlands University anthropology graduate Aaron Roth won the university’s 2012 — 2013 thesis award competition for his cutting-edge forensic research on the man archaeologists call Urraca Man.

Roth is the first to use X-ray CT scans and other high-tech skeletal forensic techniques to determine the cause and manner of death for Urraca Man, along with his ancestry.

Urraca Man was found in 1970 on the Philmont Ranch in the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northeast New Mexico. His artifacts and proximity to the Santa Fe and Taos Rayado Trail suggested he was an itinerant trader who died between 1860 and 1880.

“My study addressed the importance of revisiting old unanswered questions about Urraca Man using new methods,” Roth said. “For example, archaeologists disagreed about Urraca Man’s ancestry. This was very important to determine because if he was found to be of Native American ancestry, as thought, we needed to repatriate him with his tribe for reburial.”

Roth said repatriation for Native American remains is both a 2010 federal law and the respectful thing to do. He used anthroposcopic evaluation– visual observations of physical traits — along with metrics and CT scans to analyze Urraca Man’s remains.

“Our major finding was that Urraca Man was not Native American, but Caucasian, with a possible African admixture,” Roth said.

His job was also to determine a reasonable cause and manner of death for Urraca Man.

“The Radiology Department at Alta Vista Hospital was gracious enough to take on our Urraca Man project and provide the full-body CT scan. Based on his skeletal back injuries, Urraca Man most likely fell off his horse and died later.

“I’m interested in forensic anthropology because it gives a voice to those who can’t speak. Urraca Man speaks volumes of information about the life of a trader on the Santa Fe Trail. Archaeologists are keepers of history who strive to share that information with the public,” Roth said.

The 29-year-old Ohio native earned a 3.83 GPA for his graduate studies in anthropology from Highlands. He also earned a $500 check for the thesis award.  

Roth’s research is part of a broader research project about Urraca Man anthropology professor Warren Lail spearheaded. Lail was Roth’s adviser for his thesis and graduate studies.

Lail is researching the historical framework for the trader’s life and Vick Evans, the manager for the university’s modern new anthropology lab that Lail directs, is researching the numerous artifacts found with Urraca Man, including 18,000 beads.

The trio’s research is generating strong interest in the archaeological community, and is the subject of an upcoming book.

“With this collaborative Urraca Man project there was an exciting sense of discovery because we were working together in-house to examine unanswered questions. Without this collaboration, you have pieces of the puzzle but don’t have the tools to put it together to provide a complete picture,” Roth said.

At Highlands, Roth was a graduate teaching assistant and research assistant for Lail. Teaching helped Roth decide to pursue a doctorate in anthropology and teach at the college level.

“Warren gave me many opportunities to design my own lectures. He’s a fantastic professor and I learned so much about effective student-teacher interaction from him. He gives his students plenty of room to grow and has high expectations for them,” Roth said.

Lail said: “Aaron is first class and lectures like a seasoned professional. He’s an exceptional, meticulous researcher. Aaron is a superb student who has all the necessary tools to excel in a Ph.D. program and have a vibrant career in forensic anthropology.”

Roth is applying to anthropology doctoral programs that focus on skeletal forensics. In the meantime, he works for Google, where he troubleshoots advertising searches and more.

“The biggest draw for me at Highlands was the extensive research opportunities — including the large, rare human remains collection — and the personal one-on-one mentoring from the anthropology professors. I’m looking for a doctoral program with those characteristics,” Roth said.

Professionally, Roth wants to help advance the study of skeletal forensics for archaeological purposes, providing more information on the lives of the people being studied. He’d also like to eventually use his expertise to consult with law enforcement agencies on cold cases.