Social Sciences Panama , Panamá, Friday, July 26 of 2019, 08:05

Skeleton stories: the bone whisperer

From understanding the origin of ancient diseases to correcting misinterpretations of archaeological evidence, STRI bioarchaeologist Nicole Smith-Guzman opens a window into the intricacies of pre-Columbian life in Panama

STRI/DICYT When a tiny fragment of human bone shows up in an excavation, Nicole Smith-Guzman can tell you where exactly it came from in the body. Her interest in bones began during her childhood and adolescence, after fracturing a few of them, including her pelvis. Later, as an anthropology major in college, a human osteology class hooked her for good, connecting her intellectual interests with one of her favorite hobbies: jigsaw puzzles.


“It was a challenge to remember how these bones looked whole and, if I got fragments, being able to put them back together,” she says, while resting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, a few feet away from a recent excavation at the Punta Blanca archaeological site on Panama’s Azuero peninsula.



She is now a bioarchaeologist, a fairly recent specialization within the field of archaeology, and is able to look at human remains and decipher a variety of things, from their age and sex, to changes in bone physiology that could be related to cultural practices, activity patterns or disease. Although all of this can be done in the lab, a bioarchaeologist in the field helps prevent accidental damage to skeletons during the excavation process.


In Punta Blanca, as pieces of bone started emerging from the soil, Nicole quickly figured out the orientation of the body, directing the excavation in a way that wouldn’t affect its original position or do any harm to the bones.


“Sometimes, when you expose a skeleton, that’s the best it’s ever going to look, and a bioarchaeologist in the field can do a lot of the interpretation while it’s still in the ground”, she explains.


Since her arrival in Richard Cooke’s lab at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in 2014, first as a volunteer and currently as a post-doctoral fellow, Nicole has taken on a number of missions. First, she is creating a database of the more than 600 skeletons in the lab –with information on their age, sex, pathologies and skeletal activity markers– that future bioarchaeologists may use for more focused projects. It is a rare and valuable collection for the tropics, where bone preservation tends to be poor.


“This is possibly the biggest skeletal assemblage in the Neotropics, and potentially representative of all the people that were living in the tropical region of the Americas,” she adds.


During the process of classifying these skeletons, Nicole made some interesting discoveries. She found, for example, a high prevalence of developmental anomalies in some populations, such as teeth erupting in the wrong direction. And she also encountered cases of congenital diseases, like osteogenesis imperfecta, a brittle bone disease.


One of her most notorious endeavors was resolving the origin of a lumpy calcified mass in a pre-Columbian teenager’s upper arm. After many X-rays and CT scans, consulting of medical texts and the help of pediatric oncologists in the United States, she was able to describe the oldest cancer case ever discovered in Central America.


Nicole has also been busy correcting her predecessors’ misinterpretations. In a reassessment of archaeological work done in the fifties in the Playa Venado site in Panama, she found insufficient evidence in the bones to support the original thesis that human sacrifices or mutilations were commonplace there.

Her most recent publication concerns a bony growth, known as Surfer’s ear, inside the ear canal of pre-Columbian peoples living near the Panama Bay. This usually results from the constant exposure of the ear canal to cold water temperatures. The geographic location of these skeletons, in an area with very cold surface waters during the dry season, led her to conclude that these people were constantly diving and heavily exploiting shell resources.


Alongside STRI archaeologist and staff scientist, Ashley Sharpe, Nicole is also building a strontium map for Panama. This chemical marker that accumulates in the teeth during the first years of life, shows variation from region to region, and will reveal a lot of information about migration and movement of people along the landscape of ancient Panama.


“With my research, I really want to find out who these people were and what drove them to do what they were doing in life,” she concludes.