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The Patterns in Our Bones

Anthropology professor Debra Martin, a 2018 Distinguished Professor, finds the evidence of violence throughout human culture.

People  |  Apr 10, 2018  |  By Juliet V. Casey
Portrait of anthropology professor Debra Martin a classroom.

Distinguished Professor Award Recipient Debra Martin, anthropology.

Violence is in our bones.

So say the skeletal remains of our ancestors across the long plane of history, across continents and cultures.

“Violence has always been part of human behavior as far as one goes back,” said Debra Martin, UNLV’s Lincy Professor of Anthropology. Her biocultural approach to studying ancient bones and work to engage her students in service to the community today has led to her being named a UNLV Distinguished Professor, the highest award the university bestows.

“Dr. Martin is an internationally recognized scholar,” said Christopher Heavey, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Her scholarship stands out, not only because of the human interest aspect, but because of her practical application of knowledge through vital community partnerships.”

Since coming to UNLV in 2006, Martin has worked with her graduate students to co-author and co-edit nine books, exploring how violence becomes normalized, its meaning, and why some violent behavior in societies – including our own – is culturally sanctioned. Her work has explored societies from Nubia to the American Southwest.

Over the long arc of history, violence has been layered with meaning and often with purpose, Martin said.

Deeply Rooted Brutality

“Violence is so embedded in social structures that over long periods of time, you begin to see how it really works,” she said. “Violence is expedient in solving a problem. So, if violence is the answer, what was the question?”

In exploring the question, Martin and her students examine the bones of people living in ancient times to investigate how violence was used and on whom. Their studies identify those in power who have used violence as forms of social control and the subgroups at risk of experiencing raids, ambushes, small-scale warfare, gender violence, massacres, and enslavement.

In another context, she notes, violence is part of cultural identity. From ancient practices of human sacrifice deeply connected to a belief system to modern gang life, violent acts can be the vehicle by which members earn their place in the group.

“The more we understand about violence and who benefits, the more we can learn about intervention and prevention today,” she said.

Seeking Patterns

Martin created an internship program with the Clark County coroner/medical examiner’s office that allows students to use their skills and forensic techniques to track patterns of violent death in Southern Nevada.

“My students want to give back and want to help living people,” Martin said, noting that some have been looking at whether factors such as the recession or hotter climates have an effect on rates of violent death in Southern Nevada.

Heavey called Martin a standard bearer in the field, but also lauded her work in elevating UNLV through her teaching and community impact.

“She has dozens of doctoral students apply to work with her each year,” he said. “Having a scholar of her caliber who is so actively engaged in producing new research, particularly with doctoral students, elevates the department of anthropology and advances UNLV’s efforts to become a Top Tier institution.”