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Piecing Together the Past

Being alone in a room full of old bones may be uncomfortable for some people, but for physical anthropologists, it’s all in a day’s work. Not only can these social scientists correctly arrange all 206 bones that make up an adult human skeleton, they can also determine facts about peoples' lives--age at death, sex, stature, nutritional deficiencies, levels of work stress, exposure to infectious disease and traumas--from a careful examination of the bones. Using additional information from site studies and archival documents (including newspapers and municipal records), anthropologists can piece together what life was like for an individual or a group of people living in a particular time and place.

Rachel Watkins (pictured above), an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C., is a biocultural anthropologist, which means she studies how people’s physiological conditions--their health and disease states--reflect the social, cultural, economic, and political environment in which they lived. “Biocultural anthropologists," says Watkins, "are physical anthropologists that are committed to determining the facts of peoples’ lives by integrating biological and cultural data .” Her research quantifies the physiological affect life has on the human body, namely the physical effects of poverty and other manifestations of inequality. In a recent interview, Watkins gave MiSciNet an inside look at her research and career as an anthropologist.

Academic Background

1994--Howard University—B.S. in anthropology

1996--University of Maryland, College Park—M.S. in applied anthropology

2003--University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—Ph.D. in anthropology

2003-present--American University, assistant professor, Department of Anthropology

Anthropology: The Best of All Worlds

Watkins, a Toledo, Ohio, native, had always been interested in science, but her focus on anthropology emerged fairly late. When she was younger she had many interests, including African-American studies, French, geology, literature, and humanities. She considered herself a major in each of these subjects at one time or another, before settling on anthropology. “I chose anthropology because after changing my major so many times, I wanted a discipline that would allow me to satisfy a number of my interests rather than trying to select just one,” Watkins recounts. “Anthropology was one of those disciplines that would allow me to engage in biology, culture, and other things.”

An Anthropological Sherlock Holmes

Watkins is currently on a 1-year research sabbatical at Howard University during which she is studying urban African-American populations in the Southeast and East Coast. She is, she says, continuing work pioneered by other African-American physical anthropologists such as William Montague Cobb and Caroline Bond Day. “Cobb did pioneering work on the health consequences of poverty and inequality, but hasn’t been cited or recognized by current scholars, despite the fact that he had over 1100 publications,” Watkins explains. “Day’s work contested the ideas of biological determinism and racial differences. Being a black woman, I certainly feel that I’m standing on her shoulders.”

Although Day and Cobb have both influenced Watkins's work, Cobb laid the physical foundation by establishing the collection of skeletons Watkins is currently studying. The collection, which contains more than 600 skeletons of African Americans who lived and died in Washington, D.C., between 1930 and 1969, is housed at Howard University. Cobb assembled much of the collection before the mid-1950s, when the corpses of the poor often ended up as state property. “When someone died, and the families were unable to pay for burial, their bodies became wards of the state,” Watkins says. “They weren’t buried, but distributed to different medical schools in the city to be used as cadavers in anatomy classes. Not every individual in the collection was acquired through those means, but most that came into the collection before the mid-50s were.” Since many of the people whose skeletons ended up in Cobb's collection lived through the Great Depression, Watkins wants to understand how this time of economic upheaval affected them.

A Day in the Life of the Dead

Watkins starts her research day by pulling the skeletons she plans to examine out of storage cabinets. After laying them out on an examination table, she examines each bone for signs of excessive physical demand, fractures, or nutritional deficiencies. Because signs of infection leave minute traces on bone, she uses magnification lenses to search for them. When she wants to determine age, sex, and stature, she compares standard measurements of bone casts at different ages and data from anthropological manuals to her measurements.

In addition to her bone work, Watkins travels to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City to do library research that will help her fill in the pieces of the puzzle. “The Schomberg Center,” says Watkins, “is probably the largest archive involving African-American history, including art and literature in the world. To interpret health and disease patterns in this population, I’ll have to find documents that deal with African-American life in cities during the Depression.”

Advice for Future Anthropologists

Watkins says college students interested in a career in anthropology should take introductory courses in cultural anthropology or physical anthropology; these courses give the best overview of the field and are offered at many colleges and universities. Also valuable are classes that focus on a particular group of people--African-American studies, Native American culture, for example--as well as social science and history courses. All these fields are based partly on anthropology research and provide pieces of the foundation needed for graduate work in anthropology.

After that, it's off to graduate school, and then--once a student completes graduate training in anthropology--on to a wide array of career options. Many anthropologists work as consultants, using their research expertise to help agencies collect data that will be used to influence or implement science or health policies. Cultural and physical anthropologists may work in museums, putting exhibits together and conducting important original background research that leads to the development of exhibits and publications in scholarly journals.The work of physical anthropologists may even be seen in clothing stores and automobile show rooms: The way clothing is sized and car seats are shaped is based on anthropological measurements.

Making Her Mark on the Field

Although Watkins is committed to the scholarly pursuit of academic research, she also feels strongly about what she calls “scholar-activism.” People of color, she says--particularly African Americans and Native Americans--were traditionally used as research subjects to provide empirical evidence to support notions of racial hierarchies in physical and intellectual ability. These people weren’t able to adequately respond to this overtly flawed and racist research because they lacked the social and political power--and were not present as scientists in the laboratory. Watkins wants to give them a voice and encourage more people of color to enter the field so that the minority view is represented. “In anthropology or archeology, we’re talking about research fields where African Americans have primarily been the research subjects. Since there has been such a long history of that, there’s very little room for including them in the research process [as researchers].”

There are only about 15 African-American, Ph.D.-trained physical anthropologists in the country. Watkins and others like her see themselves as having moral commitments outside of academia; they want to do work that brings political engagement and the advocacy of social justice to the cannon of anthropological literature. “I hope people will remember me as someone who promoted that and helped to bring that about,” Watkins says. “If it happens one day, I’ll be pleased.”

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

Photos credit: Jeff Watts

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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