Debra Martin ’80 MA, ’83 PhD Discusses the Bones Behind Violence

Debra MartinPhoto credit: Aaron Mayes, UNLV
Friday, November 3, 2017

-- Via the UMass Amherst Alumni Association

Skeletal remains of generations past have a wealth of stories to tell, according to biological anthropologist Debra Martin ’80 MA, ’83 PhD, whose primary focus for the past 30 years has been on connecting the dots between ancient violence and today’s society.

“I was drawn to anthropology because it assumes nothing is black and white when it comes to understanding human behavior,” says Martin. “It accepts that there will be lots of grey areas and many factors to consider, whether they’re biological, cultural, or environmental.”

Martin, who teaches as an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says she’s always been geographically drawn to early farmers in desert regions and was initially curious to learn more about women’s health. While exploring this topic, her research took an unexpected turn.

“In a skeletal population from New Mexico, I found women that appeared to have been intentionally battered,” she recalls. “Their heads had a number of healed depression fractures on the bone in a patterned way that seemed to fit the forensic profile of domestic violence.”

Upon closer examination, however, Martin observed that, when considering environmental and social factors, there was more to these women’s stories than met the eye.

“In addition to the head wounds, I observed that these women had all been worked to the bone and died young, and they were buried differently than other women without head wounds. But, after many years of research, I learned that these were more likely captives from another group that were treated as indentured servants.”

Such a discovery opened up Martin’s eyes to a different perspective – that these early Pueblo people, once thought to be a relatively peaceful group, had exhibited violent tendencies similar to that of other small-scale societies across the globe. What, she wondered, were the motives that tied these groups together?

“In the pre-colonial world, many small-scale societies would do whatever it took to keep their population sizes up and have enough children to account for the deaths in their group, and raiding for women and children was a fairly common solution,” she explains. “This idea set me on a 25-year jag on thinking about how violence works and, more specifically, the meaning that different cultures give to violence.”

A prominent takeaway from her research, says Martin, is the idea that even using the term “violence” when describing certain actions or behaviors varies from culture to culture. Furthermore, one should not assume that trauma left on the bones is always a sign of physical violence due to war or ill-intentioned plans.

“When looking at ancient remains, it’s important to consider that head wounds do not automatically mean there was warfare,” Martin notes. “It could be that the person was deemed to be a sorcerer bringing droughts to the community and they needed to be executed. In this culturally specific case, violence was considered sensible, ritualistic, or part of a performance.”

Nowadays Martin says while much of what happened in ancient societies is no longer practiced in most parts of the globe, it’s not uncommon to see similarly-patterned violence mirrored in modern-day subgroups. Organizations like ISIS and drug cartels, she explains, heavily rely on executions carried out in performative ways to relay a message.

“Acts that rely on symbols are powerful,” she says. “When thinking about ISIS, for example, they are known for publically beheading victims because it communicates to the world a particular kind of fear and anger. They won’t bomb just any archaeological site, but ones most sacred to people living in those regions. It’s not random—it’s very well thought out.”

With this in mind, Martin says what has been most enlightening about her research is that violence can be looked at as a method of problem solving for many cultures and can significantly vary depending on a particular subgroup. This, too, implies that violent behavior is a cultural phenomenon, not a biological trait.

“Looking at violence in a more nuanced way, you can see how diverse it is, so it can’t possibly be reduced to, say, testosterone or any single biological component,” she remarks. “Usually if something has a biological origin, it’s quite universal across all cultures, but violent behavior is expressed in many different ways. As a teacher, it’s important to me to give students an alternative to reductive thinking about violence and its intentions.”

By Samm Smith ’08