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Student Presents Research at Prestigious Conference

Aaron Roth

Aaron Roth

Las Vegas, NM — A New Mexico Highlands University anthropology graduate student is the first to do in-depth, cutting-edge forensic research on the origins and death of a man archaeologists call Urraca Man. 

Aaron Roth will present his master’s thesis findings on Urraca Man Aug. 9 — 12 at the Pecos Conference, a prestigious gathering of leading Southwest archaeologists that was founded in New Mexico in 1927.

Urraca Man is named for the mesa where he 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 Trails suggest he was an itinerant trader who died between 1860 and 1890.

Roth is the first to use a CT scan with 3D images of Urraca Man’s bones to support the hypothesis that he suffered fatal injuries falling from the cliff where he was found. Roth is also the first to use sophisticated DNA testing on Urraca Man that is still in progress and is expected to confirm his ancestry as a mix of Caucasian and African.

Highlands University biology professors Sarah Corey-Rivas and Richard Plunkett are assisting Roth with the DNA analysis. Roth and his research adviser, Highlands University anthropology professor Warren Lail, consulted with Alta Vista Regional Hospital for the CT scan evaluation.   

“Identifying certain markers in the DNA strand are specific to ancestry and allow us to go beyond traditional anthropological methods to determine the person’s origins with greater certainty,” Roth said. “CT scans create multiple 3D layers and subsurface analysis of the bones that X-rays don’t provide.

“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,” Roth said.

Roth’s research is part of a broader research project about Urraca Man that Lail spearheaded. Lail is researching the historical framework for the trader’s life and Vick Evans, the manager for the university’s modern new anthropology lab, is researching the numerous artifacts found with Urraca Man’s remains.

Lail, Evans and Roth are co-authoring a book that’s about Urraca Man. Lail said the archaeology community has strong interest in the university’s research on the man.

“Urraca Man gives us a unique window for looking into the past,” Lail said. “His story gives us a vehicle to talk about the history of the Taos-Cimarron area during the mid to late 19th century. This is a rare opportunity to focus on the life and times of traders in northern New Mexico.”

Evans said, “Urraca Man is extremely unusual because of the sheer volume and variety of historical artifacts found with him, including 18,110 beads as well as bracelets, tools and more.”

Roth said archaeologists are keepers of history who strive to share that information with the public.

“Our goal with Urraca Man is to commemorate his existence through an historical marker when he is reinterred at the historic cemetery near the Kit Carson house at the Philmont Ranch,” Roth said.

At Highlands, Roth gained valuable experience as both a graduate teaching assistant and research assistant in the anthropology lab. He plans to pursue his doctorate in forensic anthropology.

“Aaron is an exceptional, meticulous anthropological researcher,” Lail said. “He’s a superb student who has all the necessary tools to excel in a Ph.D. program and have a vibrant career in forensic anthropology doing teaching and research.”

“My anthropology experience at Highlands has been fantastic,” Roth said. “To have access to a large skeletal collection like Highlands has is a rare opportunity and a big responsibility. Dr. Lail is always looking for research opportunities for his students. He’s been the driving force behind my Urraca Man research, pushing and mentoring me to excel.