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May 28, 2002

Armelagos puts undergrads above the microscope

By Michael Terrazas


Anthropology Professor George Armelagos took home this year's George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring, but the concern and involvement with undergraduates that earned him the honor has come naturally since he started teaching.

“I’ve always been involved in getting undergraduates involved in research,” Armelagos said. “If we get them involved early, it demystifies the act of research and it becomes second nature to them.”

In fact, he added, one of his colleagues—Dennis Van Gerven from the University of Utah—began as one of his students in the late 1960s when Armelagos taught at Utah. He has now worked with Van Gerven during five different decades. “I like that model,” Armelagos said of grooming students to become colleagues.

Currently, Armelagos’ students are helping him investigate the appearance of tetracycline—an antibiotic most commonly used to treat acne—in various samples of human remains, some more than 1,000 years old. “This is like unwrapping a mummy and finding a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses,” said Armelagos, who hypothesized that the drug was created in antiquity by a mold-like bacteria that found its way into beer-making processes.

This would feed, so to speak, directly into Armelagos’ primary research interest: diet and nutrition in prehistory. His 1981 book, Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating, often gets him cited in the popular press as an expert on food, but Armelagos’ intellectual curiosities extend also to skeletal biology (in which he often teaches a course) and even infectious diseases.

In fact, his current work links food and disease by tracing the emergence of infectious disease to the advent of large-scale agriculture among humans. Whereas humans had previously existed as nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers, agriculture turned humanity into geographically stable groups (more conducive to spreading disease) that often relied on single crops (which could result in poorer nutrition).

In another related subject, Armelagos is having some of his students follow women—with their permission, of course—as they wind up and down grocery store aisles, all in the name of anthropology.

“At 4 p.m., in the afternoon, 70 percent of people in United States don’t know what they’re going to have for dinner that night,” Armelagos said, saying a new phenomenon of modern women playing the role of foragers could be emerging, and this relates to yet another research interest, which is the effect of dual incomes on household food choices.

Still, between and often in the course of finding subjects to study, Armelagos discovers ways to involve undergraduates in his research, a practice that netted him the Cuttino Award. “I was quite pleased and surprised,” he said of learning he won the award. “Especially since I really haven’t been here all that long.”

Armelagos joined the Emory faculty in 1993, after a three-year stint at the University of Florida. Prior to that, he served for 23 years on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts.