From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Patricia Lambert

Anthropology professor and Associate Dean Patricia Lambert studies ancient human remains to better understand what the past can reveal about modern human violence.

What the Dean Can Tell Us

By Kristen Munson

Sometimes the bones come delivered in a box. They are lighter than one might expect—some mere ounces without the added weight of flesh. And they are often the final words of how a person lived and died. For Patricia Lambert, a bioarchaeologist and professor of anthropology at Utah State, bones are an important voice from the past.

I remember not being sure about the whole thing when I first handled human bones because you’re dealing with the taboo—the dead,” she said while arranging a skeleton on the table of the osteology lab in Old Main. “Quickly you get over that and are more interested in what the bones can tell you. I certainly think they have a lot to say. It’s a way of telling the story of ancient lives using the body.”

Bones can reveal the age and sex of an individual at death—even their diet. Bones can show how hard we work. Bony projections and pitting around joints may indicate arthritis, particularly in the bodies of laborers, but also in the elderly. Scarring on the pelvic bones signal a woman has given birth. As Lambert examines remains she looks for abnormalities where breaks healed, or for fractures or punctures in the bones—evidence that may reveal a more sinister end.

Lambert began studying prehistoric violence in 1986 as a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She has participated in archaeological projects throughout the Americas, but focuses on the Chumash people of the Northern Channel Islands of California. In the early 1990s, Lambert analyzed the remains and mortuary records of 1,744 individuals for health and violent injury in a sample spanning 7,500 years. By analyzing millennia of violence rather than specific battles, she seeks evidence to explain the causes of violence and warfare in humankind.

“I’m interested in the ultimate cause of violence and what the past can tell us about modern human violence,” she said.

An Efficient Tool

While Lambert was in graduate school there were ongoing discussions about the causes of war. Many scholars suggested its roots were tied to complex political systems and changes wrought by modern industrialization and that prestate societies in North America were relatively peaceful before Western colonization. But Lambert knew that wasn’t right—she knew ancient remains told a different story.

“When I started my career people had a different perspective of the past, a more benign one,” she said. “But I’ve found that it’s neither all peace nor all war…and I set out to quantify and explain that.”

She studied large human skeletal samples to obtain statistically valid results. Based on her investigations, war was (and still is) a predominantly male activity. For example, adolescent and young adult males obtained the majority of cranial injuries from clubbing weapons—the most common injury identified in her data sets. And men were twice as likely as women to be shot with an arrow or spear. Though violence was present throughout the 7,500 year sequence, it did vary considerably in scale and lethality, suggesting that conditions in the physical and social environment played an important role in its prevalence, she said.

At its peak between 600 A.D. and 1350 A.D., 22 percent of adult males in the Santa Barbara Channel Area sustained injuries from spears and arrows. But what led to the uptick in lethal violence? Lambert found significant clues in tree-ring records of climate from the region, which show highly unstable, drought prone conditions prevailed in southern California during this time period.

Lambert went on to conduct the first survey of prehistoric warfare across North America. While she found variations in the types of weaponry and defense tactics used, one constant was the same throughout the regions: violence and war were most widespread during the period A.D. 1000-1400.

“What seems to be changing in California and elsewhere during these years is the climate,” Lambert said. That’s the only similarity.”

As competition for dwindling resources increased so did the scale of conflict. Lambert’s work found strong correlations between warfare and drought conditions. She published her findings in the Journal of Archaeological Research in 2002. George R. Milner, professor of archaeological anthropology at Penn State University, points to the article as a turning point in the field.

Like Lambert, he specializes in human osteology and studies warfare among small-scale societies. The field is small; it took off only about 25 years ago when Lambert was just coming onto the scene. Before, the idea that ancient skeletal remains could be used for interpreting violence of the past was known, but not priority, Milner said. Lambert’s work, “put it on the map as a field of study,” he said. “Pat is one of the leading experts.”

In November, Lambert’s peers elected her to join the elite ranks of the nation’s top scientists as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow. There are only two other fellows on the faculty at Utah State. Scholars are chosen on their efforts to advance science or its applications. Lambert was recognized for her contributions to physical anthropology—particularly her research in bioarchaeology, and for her professional service in the ethics and application of repatriation law.

Two decades ago, though anthropologists uncovered defensive walls around villages and skeletons with arrowheads lodged in the bones, most conversations concerning intergroup relationships focused predominantly on cooperative behavior, not violence, Milner said. “It took a while before people got enough data to look at patterns over a larger geographic area and temporal span. We’re only in the very early stages, which is precisely the reason we need to have regional sequences.”
Milner believes more data needs to be aggregated and examined so a clearer picture of the causes of violence can be determined. “Conflict has been a very major force in human institutions. Conflict is very much part of the modern world,” he said. “It seems like it would be helpful to have a longer term understanding. How was it practiced? It might tell us something about human nature if we had this longer-term trajectory.

‘Part of the Human Story’

As bioarchaeologists, Lambert and Milner analyze ancient human remains to gain insights into the history of infectious disease and to address larger questions about human behavior. However, their discipline treads on sensitive ground. Studying human bones in the name of science can be traced back to the earliest physicians trying to advance medicine—a practice that was often performed in secret because it violated cultural beliefs. Anthropologists have another shroud in the past to counter. Before laws existed to protect the rights of indigenous populations, some early collectors, often at the behest of museums, removed artifacts and sacred objects from sites without permission.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) mandating that human remains, sacred objects, and items of cultural significance from federal and Indian lands be made available to federally recognized tribes for repatriation. The purpose was to empower tribes in decision-making regarding the disposition of their ancestral remains. For over 20 years, Lambert has worked to ensure the law addresses the interests of both scientists and indigenous groups.

“Repatriation is a delicate balance,” she said.

In some cases, native populations who claim remains bury them in accordance to their traditions. However, once interred the biological evidence is permanently lost. The extraction of ancient DNA from remains—a reality today—was impossible just a decade ago. If remains are reburied before these new scientific techniques become available, all the potential new information we might have gleaned from the bones is gone.

“As a scientist you think, they haven’t told us their whole story yet,” Lambert said. “To me there is also this curious and complicated ethical question of the rights of the dead to have their story told, versus the rights of the living to control that information, especially in the case of thousand year old remains. I especially confront this issue when studying victims of violence, because today it is often the bodies of genocide victims and those ‘disappeared’ in war crimes that provide the most compelling evidence in the search for justice. But how do you balance that ethic with the rights of living descendants, who may feel very differently about studying or even handling the remains of the dead?”

Ideally, repatriation efforts bring about respect for the living and the dead, while still permitting scientists to unlock the secrets of the past for generations to come. From 1999-2010, Lambert served on and later chaired the Repatriation Committee of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. In this capacity she traveled to national conferences and testified before Congress on behalf of the organization concerning the implementation of NAGPRA. The discussions were not always easy, she said. But someone from the scientific community has to do it.

“If you’re going to study the remains of the dead, you have to be willing to get out there, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, and explain why science benefits us all,” Lambert said. “The dead have a lot to tell us. Their stories tell us where we came from, the struggles our ancestors encountered, and how past humans met some of the same challenges we face today.”

L<br/><br/>ambert understands that part of the work she performs invites scrutiny. People don’t always like it when you study things that seem unnatural or barbaric. Perhaps some things may be too controversial when it comes to studying the dead. For example, investigating the presence of cannibalism in North American populations is an extremely contentious topic in anthropology circles. But Lambert argues that explorations like this are necessary to help identify the conditions that drive people to commit violent acts.

“This is part of the human story,” she said. “When you start hiding things, or simply don’t report things you think might be unwelcome or controversial, you obscure rather than enlighten the past, and who we are as humans.

‘Careful Work’

There are dozens of sites across the American Southwest where cannibalism is suspected to have occurred. In 1996, Lambert was invited to investigate human skeletal remains from 5MT10010, an abandoned Ancestral Puebloan site along Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado. There, the remains of seven people were found dismembered in two subterranean pithouses. The bones contained cut marks where joints were cut apart and muscle stripped from bone, and burn marks as if the flesh had been roasted. The settlement appeared to have been abandoned abruptly around 1150 A.D., in the midst of a 50 year drought in the region.

The investigators suggested the outbreak in violence was exacerbated by environmental conditions and the potential social breakdown of a Puebloan community in Chaco Canyon to the south. As populations settled in new areas and competed for resources, it may have upset existing alliances that had previously maintained peace, they posited in an article in the journal American Antiquity.

“We propose that, faced with severe environmental stress, food scarcity, and sociopolitical upheaval in the mid A.D. 1100s, certain groups in the Mesa Verde region used violence to terrorize or even eliminate neighboring villages, and that cannibalism was part of this pattern of violence,” they wrote.

However, the article was met with sharp criticism from individuals who argued the evidence simply showed that bodies had been processed—not consumed—and what the scientists had observed was mortuary behavior. Some suggested the state of the bodies indicated the punishment of witches, or was the work of a few deranged individuals. Cannibalism seemed out of the question.

“It’s been a big debate because there are so many political undertones to it,” said Clark Larsen, chair of the anthropology department at Ohio State University and Lambert’s former postdoctoral advisor.

Cannibalism has been documented in societies around the world. Yet, discussing its practice is often out of bounds even for scientists. Lambert’s team knew they had to be careful to put forth the claim. When their findings were published the predicted backlash came. And Lambert was ready. She led a meticulous response, reviewing the evidence and assembling a plausible narrative for what occurred at Cowboy Wash.

“The careful work that she does and the arguments that she [includes] in her articles, that’s what stands out in her work,” Larsen said. “Her arguments are some of the best well-reasoned, clear, and compelling [explanations] of what happened.”

The linchpin of the team’s claim was the recovery of a human coprolite, human feces, from a pithouse hearth. Preserved human waste was the one link that could connect the disarticulation of remains with consumption of them. Analysis of the coprolite by a procedure known as enzyme immunosorbent assay revealed the presence of myoglobin, a protein found only in human heart and skeletal muscle tissue. It was the first direct evidence of cannibalism in the American Southwest in the prehistoric era. The team published their results in Nature.

“What I loved about that experience was I really learned how science works,” Lambert said. “Criticism is good. It’s important. Disagreement drives science…Sometimes you kind of see what you want to see. Sometimes you don’t understand the significance of something until someone else points it out.”

She lifted a rib of the skeleton on the table. The remains were purchased from a company that sells biological specimens for academic study. She turned the bone between her fingers and pointed to scarring on the insides—a sign the man had suffered from a lung infection, possibly tuberculosis. Many of the remains Lambert studies are from the disenfranchised, the poor, or the losers in a battle. She believes their voices need to be heard.

When Lambert was working with Larsen at the University of North Carolina, she studied human remains from an unmarked, purported slave cemetery. She tried to learn more about the diet and health of slaves in the region from archival sources, but the information rarely appeared in the ledgers available from era. Slaves weren’t in a position to write their history. Lambert could glean what she could only through their remains.

“In those cases you become very aware of how important the study of human remains can be,” she said.

It’s easy to think that we are different from our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. That we are much more civilized. However, Lambert argues that we are a lot more alike than we want to admit. We still fight over limited resources. We still kill our fellow man—we just do it differently now. Warfare today may be performed with the touch of a button rather than a club over the head; it may be the ordered action of a nation state rather than a band of brothers seeking revenge against an enemy group. But it’s still violence. And it’s still happening.

“I think in order to understand violence you have to understand the role of aggression,” Lambert said. “Aggression can be an effective tool—it’s a behavior we find throughout the animal kingdom. It works to get or defend something…but it’s risky and can be very costly. ”

Acts of aggression can protect a group’s resources and can lead to the acquisition of others. But there are also other, more peaceful strategies for achieving these ends. What forces lead to violence and war, and what conditions prevent it from erupting in the first place? Lambert continues to study bones for clues.