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ASU researchers at forefront of emerging field: Biohistory

ASU research in "Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives."
April 19, 2017

New book explores how confluence of a range of fields verify legends, sort misinformation and seek truth in death

Thanks to an unlikely fusion of disciplines, it’s an interesting time to be dead — especially for the famous.   

Today, researchers at the intersections of medicine, forensics, history, anthropology, folklore and pop culture are using science to confirm details about a range of historical figures, and ASU Professor Christopher Stojanowski has captured a collection of the most interesting stories in a new book, "Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives."

Book cover

It details cases that include the work of several ASU biohistory experts and covers Old West militias, Catholic martyrs and Shakespeare’s King Richard III.  

“Oftentimes, it’s about trying to positively identify a body as belonging to a famous person from history, but there are also infamous historical events for which bodies can provide answers,” said Stojanowski, professor and associate director of undergraduate studies at ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

“The public loves it all.”

The term “biohistory” was applied in forensic contexts by ASU Regents’ Professor Jane Buikstra and describes efforts to understand famous lives from biological remains.

The book, which Stojanowski co-edited with East Tennessee State University’s William Duncan, features several ASU experts describing notable cases.

As it turns out, studying the remains of potentially noteworthy humans is a complicated business. Biohistory shares much in practice with mainstream anthropology, which is often focused on giving voice to the voiceless. But while anthropology is like working in a vacuum, trying to hear anything at all, biohistory is like listening for a clear radio station amid endless, buzzing feedback. 

There are always standing opinions and narratives in place in these cases, even if they rarely tell the whole story, Stojanowski said. 

“This means people’s life stories and even broad sections of history can be vetted, revised or retold entirely based on what is found. As you get into these cases, it really begins to raise questions about the nature of fame and of personal attachments to things bigger than ourselves.”

On fame and the human brain

Stojanowski’s first biohistory case started more than decade ago when he and Duncan were contacted by a Franciscan friar, hoping they duo could confirm the identity of a skull. The Catholic church thought the skull belonged to a friar beheaded in 1597, who was being considered for sainthood.

ASU Professor Christopher Stojanowski

After many scientific twists and turns (including a quickly abandoned idea of recreating fractures using a pig cadaver and recovering DNA from blood in the stomach of a louse recovered from the skull’s ear canal), the claim could neither be proved nor dismissed.

What stuck with Stojanowski, however, were the lingering implications of the effort — for science and living people alike.

“The friar in question was the subject of canonization procedures, so I was able to use a skill set for a community that specifically valued what I was trying to do for them,” he said.

Stojanowski realized his work had actually become a part of the friar’s story. He realized he was on the cusp of a new field of study.

“No one type of training prepares you to do this work, how to understand why we care and what the physical presence of fame and celebrity — in the form of the body — means to us,” he said. “The published literature is horribly scattered.”

In an effort to bridge this gap, Stojanowski and Duncan put out a call to others with this unique subset of experiences to share their most notable biohistory cases for the book.

“For 'Studies in Forensic Biohistory: Anthropological Perspectives,' we chose authors that could add something unique, theoretical or humanistic to the volume, more so than just an assessment of techniques and methods,” he said. “We also wanted to explore the range of individuals who become historically important, as there is some meaning to these patterns.”

Five paths to a notable demise

So what types of patterns has Stojanowski found exactly? Well, if you’re looking to be remembered, and studied, post-mortem for ages to come, this new volume can certainly provide some tips.

Option 1  Die in a macabre way.

Stojanowski describes Margaret Clitherow, a Catholic martyr who was executed in a particularly brutal manner, as a prime example (squeamish be warned — Google at your own risk).

Option 2 — Make lots of friends, enemies or money.

“Famous leaders or scientific luminaries are often targeted for study, but ASU Associate Research Professor Richard Toon has a chapter in the book that does a great job exploring the behind-the-scenes motivations for why some biohistorical cases gain traction,” Stojanowski said. “Money is often there in the background somewhere.”

Option 3 — Be in the right place at the right time.

“In the U.S., the most visible biohistory cases involve Western outlaws and a series of catastrophes and massacres that occurred during Western expansion” Stojanowski said. “There is also a chapter on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, for example, as there is an entire specialty of sociology that studies death tourism — people visiting the sites of famous murders, mass disasters, etc.”

Option 4  Leave something behind.

“In our book, there has to be a physical body or body part left behind or found that can be studied. That is our specialty,” Stojanowski said. “But there is a subset of work that seeks retrospective medical diagnoses, and here, journals and other written testimony can be used to try to diagnose (often with much controversy) a condition a famous person may have suffered.”

Option 5  Have a reputation at home.

Stojanowski said he finds local folk heroes more interesting because their stories are less well known and documented, but they still helped shape the course of history. “If publishing an article on them brings awareness to conveniently overlooked aspects of U.S. or world history, then that to me is the greater service done by this type of work.”

Acknowledging the fringe, while moving into the mainstream

Even as the concept of biohistory develops and solidifies, it still bears some remnants of its relative youth, particularly in the hands of amateurs, the scientifically untrained or others who might be drawn to the sensational more than the substantive.

Stojanowski hopes this new volume can encourage more real conversation about the social theory, complexities and responsibilities involved in dabbling with posthumous identities and its possible repercussions in the minds of the living.

“What right do people have to dissect someone’s health history hundreds of years after they died? The short answer is that most researchers probably don’t think about this as much as they should and the ethical guidelines are murky.”

On the other hand, he said, the pendulum can swing both ways.

“The book also discusses,” Stojanowski said, “some of the reputational rehabilitation that may have been part of the Richard III story that emerged over the last few years.”

Aaron Pugh

Communications program coordinator , School of Human Evolution and Social Change


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Flexible programs at ASU Study Abroad allow for different ways to see the world.
Want to study abroad & stay on track with degree? @ASUStudyAbroad has your back.
April 20, 2017

Since the inception of Global Intensive Experiences, the number of students studying abroad during breaks has more than doubled

When considering challenges such as staying on track for an on-time graduation, taking time away from family or work obligations and making a big dent in finances, the Arizona State University Study Abroad Office adopted a new program model to meet students where they are.

Similar to faculty-led programs where students take courses with an ASU professor and other ASU students, this new type of program (coined Global Intensive Experiences) bridges these gaps, and does so during seven- to 12-day academic breaks, typically winter or spring break.

With tuition packaged within the regular semester costs, these programs offer an affordable price tag (particularly since financial aid and scholarships apply) and don’t disrupt jam-packed major maps. These programs are also ideal for first-generation college students, the novice traveler or students who want to reserve their summers for internships or work.

“By offering innovative scheduling options, we can reach more students with different kinds of experiences,” said Andi Hess, study abroad program faculty director.

This past spring break, students learned about the coffee industry in Costa Ricadove into topics related to borders and identity in Cuba and got a taste for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic — all while earning academic credit. Starting in 2016, there were four programs and 65 student participants. In the current year, students had three times the amount of opportunity at 12 programs, with 176 student participants, and 2018 will offer around 30 programs with spots for nearly 300 students.

The Study Abroad Office hasn’t stopped there. To offer more options for students’ schedules, spring 2018 is a pioneering time for semester-long faculty-led programs abroad, offered during sessions A and B. The goal of these programs is to provide more economically sound options for students without disrupting their academic schedules.

One of the inaugural semester faculty-led programs in Chiang Mai, Thailand (directed by ASU Professor Martin Matuštík), offers a direct look into the culture through the Southeast Asian-West Perspectives on Philosophy, Religion and Society. With the choice of six or nine credits, students will spend seven and a half weeks bookended between winter break and spring break studying death, social conflict and transformation, and cultural and gender studies.

“Spending a semester abroad is something that a student may never have time to do again. ASU offers many programs abroad, but this one is among the very few that give students a full semester-equivalent abroad and still one session back on campus,” Matuštík said.

Besides developing intercultural competence and leadership skills required to face global challenges, Matuštík noted that students will “expand in new directions, make one’s resume stand out, pursue new topics for a capstone, thesis or field experience (clinical, political-NGO, religious or social work field experience or internship).”

On the other side of the world, Hess’ session B program is another faculty-directed option to study Identity and Conflict in the Balkans.

“The semester schedule also allows students to fit study abroad into their planned academic schedule in ways many can’t during the summers due to family, work and other obligations,” she said. “Innovative options like embedded semester programs allow us to reach more students with these incredible transformative opportunities, which in turn enriches our community.”

This five-week program offers six credits for students and covers five cities in four countries across Eastern Europe.

“We will be able to engage with local people of all kinds that would otherwise be inaccessible during the busy summer months when many areas are crowded with tourists. We are also able to offer these programs to students at a lower cost when they occur during off-seasons,” Hess said.

These programs support the vision of the Study Abroad Office in providing every student with meaningful opportunities for academic and personal growth. Students can participate in programs as short as a week, as long as a year and everything in between. ASU credit is issued on all programs, and students can earn credit toward their major, minor, certificate, general education coursework or electives. Global Intensive Experiences and faculty-led programs are only two of the four program types, with partnership and exchange options readily available for students as well.

Apply to Matuštík’s program in Thailand here, or follow his Facebook page for more details. The application to Hess’ program in the Balkans is here. The deadline for these two programs is Sept. 25.

To learn more about the 250-plus study abroad programs in more than 65 different countries offered at ASU, see the Study Abroad Office website.


Top photo: The Phra Singh Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Panupong Roopyai/Wikimedia Commons

Carrie Herrera Niesen

Communications and marketing specialist , Study Abroad Office