Biological Anthropologist Examines Violence/Cultural Processes Using Human Remains
The road to being a tenure-track biological anthropologist in UMass Amherst’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences was not a super-highway for Ventura Perez; it was more like a winding mountain path. The recipient of the UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005 when he was still a graduate assistant working toward his PhD, Perez says, “I’m the first in my family to go to college. My father, who immigrated to America from Mexico, never finished high school because he was supporting a family. In 1983, my high school counselor denied my request to take a college visitation day because, he informed me, ‘college isn’t for everyone.’”
At 16, Perez began a series of minimum wage jobs before graduating from high school at age 18. At 20, he married and started taking basic math and English courses at a junior college. At 25, he began working full-time at Alcoa to put his wife through the M.B.A. program and law school. At 26, finally overcoming problems created while in high school, he entered the University of Iowa. But that wasn’t a piece of cake either. “For the next five years I worked up to 56 hours a week and commuted 140 miles a day to attend school. But the challenges and obstacles I have faced as a Mexican-American student in a predominantly white community helped form my pedagogy and research interests.”
Perez’s area of study is institutional and interpersonal violence. “My work uses human remains as a lens through which cultural processes can be examined. How dead bodies are discussed, hidden, and displayed can be used as a point of departure for examining both the living and the dead,” he explains. Perez’s belief that violence transcends class, gender, culture, ethnic groups, and political boundaries resulted in the course Violence in American Culture. Says one student, “Not an easy class, but worth the work if you’re interested in learning something mind-blowing.”
“Violence changes the perpetrator, victim, and society,” Perez confirms. “And yet it continues as a form of cultural adaptation and is endemic to many parts of the world.” Interested in past and present populations in the American Southwest and Mexico borderlands, he recently gained permission to go to La Quemada to excavate at the Hall of the Columns. The exact use of this 41 x 32 meter building is unknown, but 1950s research points to ceremonial use, probably linked to human sacrifice. The remains found there then have never been reexamined, and the original osteological analysis has gaping holes. Perez will be tying this work to the site of Teúl (a major archaeological site located in an adjacent valley) in order test hypotheses about violence and veneration practices through the analysis of mortuary behaviors. “Many of the bones evidence cutmarks and have small holes suggesting that bones were strung and perhaps suspended from the temple ceiling,” says Perez. “Further clarification is needed to determine if the bone assemblages were due to ancestor veneration or ritualized destruction of enemy remains.”
Increasingly, anthropologists are engaging in fieldwork associated with death and violence. Anthropology provides a way to view the diversity of opinions about violence, warfare, and human rights issues that often result in death, trauma, and social upheaval. “Central to understanding how and why acts of violence are committed,” he says, “is the notion that they can be manifestations of cultural performances or spectacles. Violence is something far more complex than the infliction of pain or death. Perspectives on violence have been too narrowly conceived, and it is time for theoretical paradigms to be broadened. It is essential that anthropologists try to understand and explain the cultural mediation of real world conditions that foster the use of violence. Examining ecological and sociocultural triggers that have fueled violence and conflict in prehistory holds great promise in helping to minimize future conflicts.”
Perez is working on a National Science Foundation grant he hopes will fund a state-of-the-art comparative osteological trauma and taphonomy laboratory for research and instruction. “I envision a bioarchaeological facility to focus on and interpret skeletal mechanisms of trauma as post-depositional changes of organic remains,” he says. “It would have large worktables, computers, anthropometric measuring equipment, and macro and microscopic analysis of osteological, zooarchaeological, palynological, and artifactual materials. The UMass Amherst Bioarchaeological Trauma and Taphonomy Lab would also serve as a bridge between subfields, used by students in biological anthropology and archaeology.” In addition, Pérez is working with the both the Governor and the Attorney General of Zacatecas, Mexico to create a Violence and Conflict Laboratory that would link the Federal Forensic labs in Zacatecas with a new museum which is under construction to form a state of the art osteology and materials science facility.
As a teacher, Perez likes being with students who want to learn and also are interested in community building. As a result, he created an undergraduate curriculum that includes student participation in Community Service Learning (CSL), under the auspices of Commonwealth College. “This hands-on, integrated approach enriches learning, teaches civic responsibility, and strengthens communities,” he explains. “Some of my students helped create Students and Teens Together (SATT) for marginalized teens deemed to be medium- to high-risk for drug and alcohol use.” Originally for Amherst teens, allowing them use of the community center facilities in exchange for a contractual promise to abstain from violence and substance abuse, the program, now in partnership with the Commonwealth College's CSL office, places college students as mentors with agencies in the Pioneer Valley.
December 7, 2006