Two Archaeology Graduate Students Receive Scholarships for Groundbreaking Research
Two New Mexico Highlands University archaeology graduate students received scholarships from the Archaeological Society of New Mexico that will help fund their groundbreaking thesis research.
Jason Nevins and Aaron Roth are the first to conduct in-depth forensic anthropological studies of human remains from the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northeast New Mexico. The remains date from A.D. 800 times to the late 1800s.
Both will use the latest forensic technology in their research.
Nevins, 26, is analyzing ancient human remains from the Philmont Ranch and the UU Bar Ranch near Cimarron.
“I suspect these ancient remains are Native American, and the primary goal of my thesis research is to repatriate these remains to whichever tribe has the greatest cultural affiliation,” Nevins said. “I’ll use standard forensic anthropological techniques to determine the ancestry, stature, sex and age of these three humans that lived centuries ago.”
Nevins will also use the latest luminescent dating technology to analyze the soil within the sculls, shedding light on when the ancient people lived. Highlands’ chemistry professor David Sammeth will help with this luminescent analysis.
“It’s important not to damage the human remains so we’re not using carbon dating, which is destructive,” Nevins said.
Roth, 27, will analyze the remains of a mysterious man archaeologists have dubbed Urraca Man for the mesa where he was found on the Philmont Ranch. Historical artifacts like jewelry beads place his life sometime in the late 1800s.
“We’re using every forensic anthropological method we can to determine Urraca Man’s identity,” Roth said. “The ultimate goal is to name him, and commemorate his existence through an historical marker when he is eventually reburied on Urraca Mesa.
“Archaeologists are keepers of history and we strive to share that information with the public,” Roth said.
Rather than harm the human skeleton of Urraca Man through carbon dating, Roth will employ a sophisticated DNA protocol to date the bones of a large animal, probably a bison, found in close proximity to Urraca Man. Precise cut marks on the animal’s bones give clues that it was butchered for its meat.
Highlands’ biology professor Richard Plunkett will assist with this ancient DNA analysis.
Roth will also compare Urraca Man to human remains found at a site on the outskirts of Las Vegas that are part of the university’s Bibb Collection. Historical records and artifacts like buttons place these people’s lives in the late 1800s.
Anthropology professor Warren Lail advises Nevins and Roth, and also chairs their thesis committees.
“Studying human remains is a science but you’re also dealing with real people, and it requires maturity, respect, and even reverence,” Lail said. “Jason and Aaron embody these qualities in all their research on human remains.
“My professional colleagues hold these two in high regard. They’re both serious, dedicated students with the potential to excel in Ph.D. programs. They’re exceptional,” Lail said.
Nevins and Roth presented their preliminary thesis research at the Philmont Archaeological Conference Lail organized in October 2010.
“At Highlands, the archaeology professors are always available for one-on-one mentoring and guidance, which is invaluable,” Roth said. “There are so many resource opportunities here. It’s rare in academia to have such a large human skeleton collection available for study.”
Archaeological research experience gained at Highlands can also help open doors to other opportunities. This summer Nevins, who speaks French, will participate in an archaeological field school in southern France sponsored by the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Toronto.
Nevins plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physical anthropology and Roth’s goal is a Ph.D. in forensic anthropology. They said Lail inspired them to earn their doctorates and become anthropology professors.