Steward of bones

Every person has a passion that drives them. Whether it is the Alaskan wilderness, certain bands or a favorite athletic team, any human can identify at least one thing that drives them to research and explore. For anthropologists, that passion is humans.

Photo credit: A. Rowbotham.

Associate professor of anthropology Ryan Harrod researches and teaches at UAA. His research focus is bioarchaeology, the analysis of human skeletal remains from ancient and historical contexts.

“I became a biological anthropologist because I am fascinated by what we can learn about the lives of people who lived in the past,” Harrod said.

Working with undergraduate and graduate students is one of Harrod’s favorite academic accomplishments. Liz Ortiz, a M.A. candidate and avid anthropology researcher, holds Harrod in high regard because of the culture of respect he fosters.

“Ryan [Harrod] gives his students opportunities to succeed not just now, but in the future,” Ortiz said. “Every opportunity is unique, and we have worked on forensics research, [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] projects, and gender diversity and inequality research together. Working with Ryan Harrod is one of the most rewarding aspects of my education at UAA.”

Ashley Hannigan, another M.A. student in anthropology with Harrod as her graduate advisor, echoes the sentiments of Ortiz.

“I personally would not have had the opportunities to do outside research, publish and present that research and move on to continuing education if it were not for Ryan [Harrod’s] support,” Hannigan said. “He puts forth extra effort to support students and offer opportunities for research, presentation and laboratory experience both in and out of the classroom.”

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Harrod treats human remains with the same dignity he treats his students and fellow researchers. Alive, dead or half-dead during finals week, he believes in respecting all human beings.

“I do not ever want to possess bones or fossils,” Harrod said. “I often act as a steward while I analyze the bodies, but I return them to the descendant community or local authorities when the research is finished.”

Harrod said that the purpose of the field of anthropology is to research past stressors as a way to prevent and cope with them in the present. Examples of the stressors Harrod has addressed in his research include intimate partner violence, slavery and captivity, massacres and homicide and the impact major climate shifts have on human conflict.

“The analysis of human skeletal remains can help us understand how people dealt with epidemics,” Harrod said. “Grounded in the biological sciences, researchers in the field are working to help us better understand what it means to be human.”

Analyzing human skeletal remains isn’t for everyone. Following passions, on the other hand, is a keystone of human nature. If the study of anthropology was limited to one lesson, the lesson would be that human life is fleeting and fragile.

“Follow your passion in life and someday you will find yourself in a career that will bring you happiness,” Harrod said. “Even if it is a little odd, like the study of human skeletal remains.”