National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Susan Pfeiffer

Affiliation: University of Toronto

Susan Pfeiffer’s research concentrates on reconstructing the conditions of past human lives from characteristics of bones and teeth. She is especially interested in methods that focus at the bone tissue level, such as biomechanical modeling and histology. For several years, she has focused on research questions based in southern Africa. She was drawn to that region because of its rich archaeological record, and the long temporal evidence for peoples with successful hunting and gathering adaptations. Pfeiffer is Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. She is a research associate in the Archaeology Department at the University of Cape Town and has taught undergraduate courses in Human Evolution there. From 2012 to 2016, she was the bioarchaeologist for the Later Prehistory of West Turkana (LPWT) project, with colleagues at Stony Brook University. She is now a Research Professor in the Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) at George Washington University.

Professor Pfeiffer has also contributed to questions about the lives of the ancestors of Canadian First Nations peoples. Since her PhD thesis on hunter-gatherer populations of the Upper Great Lakes, she has published research on archaeologically derived skeletons from Ontario, particularly the ossuaries of the Northern Iroquoians. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has served on the Research Advisory Board of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.


This talk is about when and why the dead are disturbed, and what happens next. Burials get disturbed by accident or by plan. Society is becoming more responsive to the argument that some skeletons in museum collections were unethically collected. Groups representing descendants are motivated to seek repatriation for many reasons, including cultural restitution. Decisions about next steps need to weigh many factors, including the scientific value of research on human remains. Advances in palaeogenomics – the study of ancient DNA – are driving new interests in old collections. After human skeletons have been disturbed, the act of making amends – of making things right – is not straightforward.

Based on my own research, I will illustrate the value and insights that come from study of human skeletons. Examples come from historic and prehistoric contexts, from North America and southern Africa. I will discuss the planning and execution of a large-scale repatriation in Canada. My core argument is that researchers and descendant communities need to become strong partners, to tell new stories about the lives of the ancestors.

Human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts can generate unique insights into the past. Human remains can form the basis for tests of evolutionary hypotheses and can provide descendants with stories about their ancestors’ lives. This talk will summarize results from several decades’ research into the ancestors of the Khoe-San people of southern Africa, who have lived in the region for over 100,000 years. They are genetically distinctive and have distinguishing physical features. Their lives as mobile hunter-gatherers left little evidence on the landscape, save for their burials. Research has led to insights into habitual behaviors, diet, child growth and population size. Focusing mainly on coastal communities, the focus will be on the value and pitfalls of reliance on ethnographic information about the descendants, and on interpreting unique patterns from archaeological evidence. Ancient interpersonal violence, limited in time and space, is especially challenging to interpret and explain.

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