August 23, 2007

Scholar's study of skeletons offers look at history

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — For Benjamin M. Auerbach, this year's Center for Archaeological Studies' Visiting Scholar at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, appearance goes a lot further than skin deep. It goes to the bones.

Auerbach is a biological anthropologist specializing in skeletal analysis. His interests are such matters as limb length and how a skeleton shows evidence of the height and even the weight of the person the skeleton used to be. He uses skeletal remains to study the effects of climate, disease and population, and to get a glimpse at the diversity of people who lived in North America.

"We can't reconstruct North America from 1491 (the year before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World), but if we can understand even an iota of the diversity that was here – it's a tantalizing question," he said.

As the CAI Visiting Scholar, Auerbach will further his own research and network in his field. But it won't be all fun and games and taking cranial measurements. Auerbach is also responsible for organizing the annual CAI Visiting Scholar Conference – an annual event since 1984 – and for editing the papers delivered during the conference into a volume published in CAI's Occasional Papers series.

The conference, set for the last weekend of April 2008, is in the very earliest stages of organization. Auerbach said he wants to bring together scholars from the different but similar disciplines of biological anthropology and archaeology. Papers will focus on the 10,000 or so years since humans came to the New World. Auerbach said the emphasis is not really on human origins in North America. Rather, he will use the conference to explore how humans shaped and were affected by their environments after they settled in the Americas. He hopes the combination of continent-wide examination and cross-scholarly perspective will enrich the conclusions scholars are able to draw from their individual research.

Visiting scholars also teach one seminar related to their research during their time at SIUC. Auerbach will teach the course during the spring 2008 semester. The specific topic is not set yet, but Auerbach confirmed one thing. "I can tell you it will involve skeletons," he said.

Auerbach recently received a doctoral degree in anatomy from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He held a research fellowship in biological anthropology at Miami University in Ohio and earned a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant in 2006 and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2001. His undergraduate work included a bachelor's degree in anthropology with a minor in criminology and a bachelor's degree in comparative religion, both from Miami University.

Auerbach has teaching experience at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He was the site skeletal biologist for a Kentucky archaeological survey during a salvage excavation of a 19th-century cemetery. In addition, he researched and collected data at dozens of museums and natural history collections both in the Americas and in Europe as he investigated morphological changes and variations in skeletal remains and the methodology behind height estimation from skeletal analysis.