Down to Bare Bones
When Melanie Beasley came to CSU, Chico in 2004 to pursue her master’s degree, she was excited about what our nationally recognized forensic anthropology program could offer her. She didn’t imagine that she would leave the program with the lasting legacy of a Stable Isotope Preparation Lab within the Human Identification Lab—a facility that enabled her to complete her research and that students will be able to use for years to come.
Eric Bartelink, assistant professor, Anthropology, said Beasley, who will receive her MA in anthropology in May, was instrumental in setting up the lab.
She first heard about the uses of stable isotope analysis in physical anthropology at the 2005 American Academy Association of Forensic Science meeting in New Orleans during her first year at Chico. The technique makes it possible to analyze the chemical makeup of bones to determine things like what kinds of foods a person ate, where they were born, age of weaning, and social status. Beasley was fascinated. “I decided right then and there that that was what I wanted to study,” she said.
There was just one problem. The facilities just didn’t exist on the Chico State campus. Beasley befriended a UC Santa Cruz PhD student specializing in stable isotope analysis and started spending time in their campus labs. Then, in 2006, Bartelink was hired—and Beasley found an ally in the establishment of a stable isotope preparation lab at Chico State.
Bartelink said he had planned to develop a lab at CSU, Chico similar to the one he used as a PhD student at Texas A&M, where he used stable isotope analysis to examine the diets of past Native American populations in Central California, including the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento Valley. He applied for two on-campus grants, which provided the funding to buy some of the key equipment, such as a scale, an oven, and a centrifuge. Then he made a list of remaining equipment needs and, Beasley said, “Let me loose.”
Beasley’s negotiations with other departments and universities, said Bartelink, “defrayed the costs of lab development by thousands of dollars.” She got a lab at UC Santa Cruz to donate beakers, bottles, and glassware. They also gained the support and cooperation of other departments on campus: The chairs of the biology and chemistry departments gave Beasley access to distilled water (which she hauls from the biology building to the lab four gallons at a time) and an FT-IR spectroscopy machine, which is used to determine whether bone fragments are too fossilized to provide meaningful isotope information. Geological and Environmental Sciences donated a freeze drier to prepare bone collagen, an approximately $10,000 piece of equipment that they hadn’t used in five years.
By the spring of 2007, the stable isotope preparation lab was ready. Beasley was able to complete her thesis research on the Ellis Landing Shellmound in the San Francisco Bay area, determining how the Native American population’s diet changed over time.
Bartelink and Beasley are currently studying a sample from a historic African American cemetery in Virginia to examine slave diets. They are also working on projects with native peoples and archaeologists from the Bay Area to examine prehistoric diets in south San Francisco Bay and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Our hope is that one day the lab will be supported by grants and contract work processed at our facility,” said Beasley.
Stable isotope research is still in its infancy within forensics, and few anthropology departments have their own preparation lab, said Bartelink and Beasley. Now CSU, Chico is on the cutting edge of the field. “We are conducting pilot studies to evaluate whether dietary analysis may help in the identification of unknown skeletal remains, which may be especially useful for identifying foreign-born individuals who die in the United States. We hope the isotope data may help to track their birthplace, especially when other skeletal information point to a particular area of the world,” he said.
“This lab will ensure that stable isotope projects can continue and that students will have access to interesting research opportunities in anthropology, such as reconstructing prehistoric diets and migration patterns,” he added.
Beasley is looking forward to presenting her research this spring at three different conferences—two in the United States and one in Canada. “Chico has an outstanding reputation in the forensic community,” she said. “Part of the reason for that is because so many students present original research at professional meetings and conferences. Every year, Chico State students and alumni outnumber most other schools at the American Association of Forensic Science meetings.”
And access to the Stable Isotope Preparation Lab will provide future bioarcheology and forensic students with even more opportunities to do the original research that distinguishes the program and makes CSU, Chico a leader in the forensic anthropology field.
—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications