UNM Undergraduate Student Contributes to Highlighted Anthropology Research

Departmental News

Posted:  Aug 08, 2022 - 12:00pm

As an undergraduate student at The University of New Mexico, Alex Harris was part of a team of researchers and is co-author of a paper that was recently highlighted in a scientific journal. For her contribution to the research, she scanned hundreds of fish bones from modern and archaeological sources for the project, which examined the fishing practices of Ancestral Pueblo people and their sustainability.

The research, recently chosen for the editor's spotlight in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is titled Body Size from Unconventional Specimens: 3D Geometric Morphometrics Approach to Fishes from Ancestral Pueblo Contexts. Co-authors on the research are adjunct assistant professor of Anthropology at UNM Jonathan Dombrosky; UNM Biology professor Thomas Turner, who is also curator of the division of fishes at The Museum of Southwestern Biology; and UNM associate professor of Anthropology Emily Lena Jones. Dombrosky, then a Ph.D. candidate, and Jones received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2020 for $30,298 to research the impact of a changing environment on the incorporation of new foods into human diets.

Harris came to UNM from New York to run track and cross country and study Archaeology. She majored in Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology and minored in Biology. She graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Science degree.

Before the pandemic Harris took a zooarchaeology course taught by Jones and Dombrosky.

“I loved the lab portion of the course where we worked with and identified the bones of different animal species,” she said. The pandemic outbreak prevented her from being in the lab in person for a while but in the fall of 2020, Harris started volunteering in the zooarchaeology lab, helping Dombrosky sort through faunal skeletal material. Shortly after, she started helping on the NSF project, primarily taking 3D scans of the skeletal elements of the fish.

Scanning all those fish bones can be monotonous, Dombrosky acknowledged. “I am lucky she agreed because she made it seem so effortless to scan a lot of skeletal material. She was always interested in what we were working on and diligent in setting aside time to work on this project. I learned that this is just naturally how Alex is. She is working on a lot but is always hungry to learn more, and she was always ready to crack a joke. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to work with her.”

The research shows that contrary to a common misconception that Ancestral Pueblo people rarely ate fish, not only did fish become a more common part of their diet and the bigger the fish, the better. The scans were used to calculate body size of the fish from zooarchaeological remains. Then the procedure was used to evaluate whether Ancestral Pueblo people caught larger than average fishes during the late pre-Hispanic period (ca. 1300–1600 CE) in the Middle Rio Grande region of New Mexico and use these data to evaluate the connection between changing environment and Pueblo fishing decisions, according to the research paper.

“Alex was instrumental in helping me complete my dissertation work and collecting data for the spotlighted article in the Journal of Archaeological Science,” Dombrosky said. “Alex’s research interests are centered on human evolution and how humans move the way we do, also called biomechanics. There are tons of new scientific techniques used to study the structure and function of skeletal material, and 3D scanning is one of those techniques. Alex excelled in the zooarchaeology class taught by Emily Jones that I helped TA. So, it was a no-brainer to ask if she would be interested in getting experience with scanning bones and also getting some financial support along the way.”

“As someone who mainly does research on human evolution, it was fun to take a different perspective in looking at subsistence strategies of the past—and gain a better appreciation of fish anatomy. I think the paper has the potential to make a significant impact in the field of zooarchaeology when analyzing fragmented specimens but may also shift assumptions about the human past specifically from an energetics perspective when looking at how populations fed themselves,” Harris said.

Harris is currently in the home stretch toward her master's degree in human evolution at the University of Cambridge in England and submitted her dissertation this week.

“My current project is looking at the socio-ecological factors that influence the use of human-made trails in Taï chimpanzees in Ivory Coast, Africa, to see if there is a potential energetic benefit.”

In August she will be start working on her Ph.D. at Harvard University, studying Human Evolutionary Biology.

“After just a short time of interacting with Alex you realize that she will just make things work, either by being incredibly dynamic or willing things into existence. I’m proud to have been able to work with her for the short time that I did and to have supported her for a part of her undergrad career with NSF funds. I am also so excited to see where her training at Harvard University will take her and to see her fascinating career develop,” Dombrosky remarked.

“My time at UNM working in the zooarchaeology lab with Emily and Jon as well as in the Human Physical Activity lab with my mentor [assistant professor of Anthropology] Ian Wallace definitely changed the trajectory of my career. I feel so grateful that I was given the chance to get involved in a few incredible projects as an undergrad. It was through those experiences that I discovered that I wanted to pursue a future in academia, and I really loved spending time in a lab setting,” Harris said.

UNM News 7/22/22