Feeling it in your bones

March 29, 2016

Anthropology grad on the road to becoming a bioarchaeologist

If people are at the heart of a civilization, and buildings and infrastructure are its bones, then between her work life and her academic life, Mellisa Thew (Bachelor of Arts, ’15) is the whole package.

By night, the anthropology grad works on the traffic crew helping to build the backbone of Edmonton’s transportation network, the northeast leg of Anthony Henday Drive. While not necessarily a dream post-graduate job for an anthropology major, Mellisa says it’s the best way to save for graduate school—she wants to be a bioarchaeologist, a long path she knows will likely lead to a less lucrative career, but one she feels compelled to follow.

...human remains are us at our core—with all the context of difference and anger removed.” Mellisa Thew

“I feel so connected to bioarchaeology because I know that everything that has happened in the past forms our present, and will continue to inform our future,” she says, as a few tears betray her. “People are really shitty to each other, but human remains are us at our core—with all of the context of difference and anger removed. It’s just us with no other political, cultural or religious bullshit attached.”

The first time Mellisa felt that deep connection to the past, she was in Copán, Honduras.

“I walked up to some Mayan temple remains and I had this weird feeling. I knew I needed to be connected to things like this. I came back to Canada, saved up some money and then one day I just woke up and knew the time was right.”

So Mellisa began her anthropology degree, seizing every opportunity—field schools in Italy and Greece, work on the Alberta Historical Cemeteries project and an independent research project removing fiberglass resin from human skeletal remains.

During her final year, Associate Professor Hugh McKenzie invited Mellisa on a research trip to study small prehistoric mortuary sites in Russia. So instead of preparing for convocation, the new graduate found herself flying halfway around the world looking for relationships between groups of early Bronze Age hunter-gatherers in Siberia.

Based out of a tiny 250-square-foot cabin in a touristy area in the old mountains on the shores of Lake Baikal, Mellisa and her nine fellow team members worked in their gridded-out plots early in the morning so they could avoid the surprisingly hot midday temperatures. They chose areas of interest based on stone layers and patterns where they thought they might find the graves of prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

“If they looked like potential sites, we’d mark them off with string and do sod busts—remove the top layer, exposing all the rocks and then start drawing and taking pictures.”

Then they would work their way down, sometimes not finding anything and other times striking archaeological gold.

“We excavated several different plots at different ancient cemeteries—at Burlyuk II, Burlyuk IV, Ulan III and Budun IV, and on Olkhon Island.”

Once the remains were uncovered, Mellisa focused on the teeth, looking for specific genetic traits like extra cusps (the pointy parts on a tooth), winging (incisors that are placed in a v-shape in the jaw) and shovelling (where the incisors are scooped). Using a grading system, she compared the teeth against casts and ranked them, recording her results on data sheets that she later entered into a database.


Why? “Certain geographical areas have specific traits and others don’t, so if you start seeing traits in an area that hasn’t had them before, you can see a geographical shift in populations or someone coming in from the outside.”

Finding out exactly who was coming into the area is a key part of the larger research project, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSCHRC) Insight Development Grant. “We’re trying to use teeth—the ones we gathered this season and others from past seasons—about 50 sets in total—to see if there is a specific group use or intergroup use of cemetery plots,” explains Mellisa.

Now that her data is collected and digitized, Mellisa writes up her findings during the precious spare time she has away from her 100-hour work weeks on the road crew.

Reaching her end goal is going to take patience, but she says that won’t be a problem.

“What we do in anthropology is all about patience,” she says. “Just because things aren’t showing up doesn’t mean that things aren’t there—the absence of results is still results.”

And while Mellisa says she has already gotten a lot out of her archaeological experiences, giving back is really what motivates her.

“I want to end up excavating mass graves from more recent civil wars. There are families in Central America and other places around the world who don’t know where their relatives’ remains are. I’d like to work on a recovery program that gives people back their loved ones.”

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