Ancient relics revealed: Archeological studies come to life in TU professor’s lab

Paleolithic archaeologist and paleoanthropologist Miriam Belmaker, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Tulsa, has been invited to co-direct an international expedition on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

archeological studiesAs co-director of the Kinneret Regional Project, Belmaker will help steer an international collaboration of investigators from leading colleges in Switzerland, Finland and The Netherlands. At the same time, she will offer her students unparalleled opportunities to conduct cutting-edge research that seeks to expand our knowledge of day-to-day life and the environment during biblical times. The research could also advance our understanding of humankind’s ability to adapt to major temperature and precipitation shifts.

For Belmaker’s students, such opportunities could jump-start a career.  

Student research unlocks career opportunities

Laura Ruiz, a junior from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, had the chance during her sophomore year to help Belmaker analyze ancient animal remains on loan to TU from archaeological sites around the world. Already, that elbow-to-elbow work with a professor has paid practical dividends, giving Ruiz a leg up in competing for a prestigious National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates this summer. Ruiz won the opportunity to analyze fish fossils from the Anthropocene era, an accomplishment that will make her more competitive for further research awards and more attractive to graduate schools, as well as help her build a résumé and references that will set her apart in the job market.

“While the work in Belmaker’s lab is more focused on mammals, the skills that I needed in order to successfully handle and analyze fish bones remained the same,” Ruiz said. “The skills that I gained working alongside Belmaker in her lab immediately become useful.” 

Animal teeth as markers of climate change

Belmaker uses a novel approach to investigate climate change: She analyzes microscratches left on fragments of fossilized small-mammal teeth.

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Scratches on an animal tooth, as seen under the microscope

The microscratches can reveal to Belmaker and her students whether a particular mouse or shrew survived on thistle and hay, reflecting a desert-like environment, or dined on lush green leaves, suggesting rainy climes.

Over the centuries, changes in microscratches found on tooth remains from a given site can point to temperature and precipitation changes in that region, while examination of contemporaneous human fossils and artifacts can reveal whether people stayed in place as the climate changed or took off for other environs.

When the lab meets real-life

Being able to touch millennia-old artifacts would be out of the question for undergraduates at most large research institutions, where research positions tend to be restricted to only select graduate students.

But at TU, student-faculty research is regarded as pivotal to help students meet and exceed their professional aspirations.

archeological studiesFour undergraduate students are working in Belmaker’s lab right now through independent study or as part of a class. And one to two students accompany her to archaeological research sites each year as funding permits. Students don’t need to be majors; those from any discipline are welcome. With enough funding, Belmaker envisions opening a field school for TU students on the shores of Galilee.

On campus, some of Belmaker’s students have been able to work with the state-of-the-art white light confocal microscope that she acquired through a grant from the National Science Foundation, making TU home to one of the few such instruments in the U.S. The instrument allows Belmaker to analyze microscratches on small-animal teeth in three dimensions.

Keeping students on their toes

But whether or not Belmaker’s students look directly through the microscope, all benefit from her scholarship. It keeps her at the forefront of her field, and ensures that her lectures up-to-the-minute.

Every semester, Belmaker makes the same prediction to her Introduction to Biological Anthropology class (Anth 2033): There will be an earth-shattering revelation during this course that will render your textbook obsolete.

“I have yet to have a semester where that hasn’t been true,” she said, emphasizing how valuable it is for university students to learn not just from a textbook, but also from an active scholar.

Scholarship around the globe

Belmaker’s scholarship, which asks questions spanning the extent of human evolution for the past two million years, has taken her around the globe working in archaeological excavations and in museums. She has more than 800 Google Scholar citations to date, reflecting the impact of the scientific articles she has authored or co-authored on the academic community worldwide.

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Belmaker along with 2019 Kinneret Regional Project team and staff members

The Kinneret expedition has been underway for about three decades under the auspices of the University of Bern (Switzerland), University of Helsinki (Finland) and University of Leiden (The Netherlands). Belmaker first joined last year as a guest scientist. She was brought on board to see if she could infer any climatic changes from rodent and shrew remains during the millennia from 3000 BC to 1000 AD.

Her international colleagues were impressed enough with the potential of her work that they invited her to serve as co-director. Already, because of her influence, Kinneret and nearby archeological excavations have begun to employ the fine-mesh sieves needed to collect small-mammal material.

Belmaker looks forward to sharing everything she learns at Kinneret with her students.

“But I don’t teach students to be rodent people,” she said. “I teach them to think about questions. Understanding who we are is critical for any path that students would like to take.”