Native Village
Youth and Education news
December 2009  Volume 2

Anthropology student wants to take knowledge home
By Linda Thornton,
Condensed by Native Village

New Mexico: In 10th grade, Daniel Pedro knew that he wanted to be an anthropologist. He also knew that as a Zuni, he could not touch human remains – a common task for physical anthropologists.

It was kind of a barrier,” said Pedro, now a 20-year-old freshman at the University of New Mexico-Gallup. “I had to find a way to work around it.”

Pedro began to look for that way by participating in New Mexico's Supercomputing Challenge. The challenge teaches middle and high school students how to use computers to analyze, model and solve real world problems.

Pedro's idea was to study the faces of living Pueblo peoples for consistent similarities. He would then apply that data to identify and repatriate skeletal remains.  “My goal. … is to make it easier for anthropologists to figure out which tribe/pueblo the remains belong to on the computer, instead of disrespecting Native customs and damaging the skull,” he said.

UNM Curator of Human Osteology, Heather Edgar, was impressed by Daniel's inventive approach to problem solving, so she advised and encouraged his project. She also gave him a medical diagram of a human skull with which to start his studies.

“We need a Native perspective in anthropology, and especially a perspective that comes from working with living communities,” Edgar said.

Pedro’s unique project soon attracted several other advisors and mentors.

“They were impressed by the fact it was a student who wanted to do this kind of work, and a high school student and a Native American at that,” Pedro said.

Pedro used the computer to rotate human skulls side by side and compare them in different profiles. His goal was to find a way to determine which tribe or pueblo a skull might belong to with only minimal handling.

The result was an entry for the Supercomputing Challenge called “Scan of the Past.”

“He learned a lot about the mathematics of 3D computer graphics and the rotation and scaling of 3D objects on the computer,” said Irene Lee from Santa Fe Institute.

For this phase of his project, Daniel received the Judges’ Choice Award for “Integrating Computation into Anthropology” from the Supercomputing Challenge.

The second phase of his work was on a new version of “Scan of the Past.” With help from Steve Guerin of Redfish Group, Pedro constructed a proxy data set during his senior year. He then used facial data from 15 landmarks on the faces of 45 individuals. The set allowed him to practice techniques and classification for use in real world data.

“It was great to have help from so many mentors,” Pedro said. “I had wondered if my project would be taken seriously because this was something really new.”

After graduating from high school in 2008, Pedro enrolled at UNM-Gallup. Last year he worked at A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni to learn about caring for exhibits and working with photo collections. He also made a presentation during the Conference on Archaeoastronomy of the American Southwest. His topic was an interactive computer model of the Chaco Canyon Sun Dagger site.

Daniel says that Native Americans “did marvelous things,” and that, when studying historic sites, “It’s best to listen to Native American oral traditions about what happened at these sites. If we can integrate these traditions with what we can learn from modern technology, we can create another level of thinking.”

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