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martes, 6 de junio 2023
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"Bones Tell What You Eat and Where You Come from."

By: Ronal Castañeda - Journalist

The North American anthropologist Jane E. Buikstra visited the UdeA Osteology Laboratory to collaborate in research on bone pathologies and traumas from samples of bone material found in the collection of this establishment. The newspaper Alma Mater spoke with the expert in bioarchaeology. 

In February, the North American anthropologist and bioarchaeologist Jane Ellen Buikstra was at the Osteology Laboratory doing a comparative analysis of bone material housed there. Photos: Communications Office / María Camila Monsalve A.

Bones are like codes to be deciphered and can become a historical record of the individual and their cultural context. Bone material provides information about ancestry in populations. It also helps to recognize a person's diet from chemical analyses made on the teeth with carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotope tests.

That is why archaeological studies aid anthropological research to find pathologies in bones. This information is also helpful for forensic records: "If there is an unknown person, whether in a mass grave or in a plane crash, or just someone who was found on a mountain and is skeletonized, it would be more useful if we knew we should be looking for someone who had cancer," commented US researcher Jane Ellen Buikstra.  

In February, the anthropologist was at Universidad de Antioquia's Osteology Laboratory to analyze some samples of bone material. She only had a few days in Medellín to make some observations of an individual with signs of cancer before returning to the United States for a meeting of the board of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, of which she is a member. 

The scientist is recognized for having contributed, among other studies, to the discipline of bioarchaeology, a branch of archaeology that applies anthropological and biological studies in its methodologies. For example, she has worked on the evolutionary history of an "ancient tuberculosis" that originated in the American continent using the archaeological recovery of pathogenic DNA. Thus, she was in Bogotá in 2018 taking samples of archaeological remains of individuals with this disease, which helped her understand her thesis that this type of tuberculosis was in the region before Christopher Columbus, i.e., it did not come from the Old World. 

You may be interested in reading: Aporte de la física al estudio de piezas de oro prehispánico en Antioquia

"It's been difficult to understand that. But now, with biomolecular methods, with DNA, we can understand it. It seems that the disease jumped from seals or sea lions to humans in South America, but it also appears in North America. I knew that there were remains affected with this type of pathology around Bogotá - far from the coast - so they had to have been infected by other humans, not by marine mammals," said Jane Buikstra, who is now working with a group in Ecuador to see what the disease is about there. 

A Fifty-Year Career

Jane Buikstra is one of the most recognized scientists in her field. She has directed the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association, and the Paleopathology Association. She is currently the president of the Center for American Archaeology and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Paleopathology, a journal on archaeology, arts and humanities (Q1), pathology and forensics (Q2). In addition, she has authored over 25 books and 200 articles and mentored over 50 PhD students.

She has been to Medellín twice. On the first occasion, she met with researchers from Universidad de Antioquia to study a 17-year-old, which they called Ecce Homo, with an uncommon or rare disease: "advanced holoprosencephaly." This type of study receives special attention from paleopathologists -scientists who study the illnesses suffered by people or animals in ancient times and their evolution- and should be of much more interest. 

The second time she was in Medellín was this year, again invited by the Osteology Laboratory. This time she wanted to research bone pathologies and traumas from the collection of remains kept at the Laboratory, located at the Graduate School of Universidad de Antioquia.

Buikstra now looks quietly, carefully, at a fragment of a skeleton of an individual who died of cancer, although she is unsure what kind.

Sample of bone material housed in the collection of the Osteology Laboratory Universidad de Antioquia.

"This is a man. It could have been prostate cancer or lung cancer. It's impossible to know, but there are significant changes in the ribs. It's an interesting case because not only did he have cancer, but he also seems to have had a disease that we call DISH - Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis - a pathology that causes the spine to fuse along soft tissue lines. So he had that and cancer, which was debilitating," she said. 

In addition to her studies on ancient tuberculosis, Buikstra works with recently deceased individuals because they are "an opportunity to have medical records and autopsies together." These methods help recognize the corpses of missing persons. They are difficult to find in the same laboratory, as is the case at UdeA. 

In fact, since 2008, the Laboratory began to negotiate loan agreements with local cemeteries and now has about 500 individuals to evaluate their pathologies and traumas. 

That is why Buikstra believes that the Osteology Laboratory's collection is of great research interest. "It is important because it represents one of the few collections in Latin America where you have individuals and their medical records. People from the United States will come later to study the remains that represent people from the Americas. Besides, we don't know much about physical anthropology -which studies the evolutionary process of the human species- and this one is very special in that sense."  

Deepening Anthropological Studies

For Buikstra, a big question in the study of ancient diseases remains unanswered: how old cancer is. The researcher is interested in knowing, from known individuals, the range of expression of this pathology and possibly the chemical changes in bone caused by cancer as a process. This "will help identify how far back we need to go to recognize its traces and prevalence, which will be useful in forensic medicine contexts and the history of disease in general." 

For example, forensic anthropologists identify normal and abnormal bone features to distinguish atypical characteristics. They look for changes in shape, size, porosities, splinters, and additions or subtractions of part of the bone material. In this exercise, however, there will always be the risk of misinterpreting data, as happens with the bone's natural modifications after death.  

Information on origin is also extracted from the bone. This is the basis for studies in bioarchaeology. According to the expert, the best source of ancient DNA is obtained by drilling inside the skull and extracting some bone. Buikstra, 78 years old, explained that she is now also doing joint work with a group from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, with which she is investigating the remains of bodies found in Greece since they are interested in knowing to whom the Hellenes are related. In this regard, they have discovered surprising things, such as kinship between individuals from North Africa and Iran. 

"We can drill down and talk more specifically about people who have migrated from one place to another. For example, it is useful in forensic medicine because it allows us to distinguish the provenance of unfortunate deaths of migrants who cross the border in the southern United States."  

Fifty years into her career, Jane Buikstra is sure that the questions she asked herself when she began her studies may be the same as now. The difference is that better technologies are emerging that have aided her investigative process. In turn, forensic studies will endure and be necessary for years to come. 

Humanity has always searched for its ancestry and kinship. It has wanted to conquer history and its main events and know whether they were violent. In extreme cases or disasters, people want to recognize the corpses, as happened in the earthquake in Turkey, after which the Government reported more than 45,000 deaths that included bodies mixed in the buildings. In such cases, the work of the forensic anthropologist or bioarchaeologist making social reconstructions from the bones is necessary. 

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