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Studying violence

Vanier winning bioarchaeologist part of extensive international research project in Paquimé, Mexico

Vanier winning bioarchaeologist Adrianne Offenbecker is studying the history of violence in Paquimé, Mexico. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Heath McCoy
October 2, 2014

As a bioarchaeologist seeking to understand the origins of violence among humans, doctoral student Adrianne Offenbecker would be hard pressed to find a better research site than Paquimé, Mexico. 

This archaeological zone, located in northwestern Mexico, was the site of a large, flourishing population for about three centuries before the community was mysteriously abandoned around 1450 AD. It is known that Paquimé had an emerging social hierarchy and all of the inequality that comes with it. There is also evidence of interpersonal conflicts, human sacrifice and cannibalism when the region was cleared out. 

Offenbecker is part of an extensive research team in Paquimé, led by her supervisor, University of Calgary archaeology professor Anne Katzenberg and including researchers from Canada, the United States and Mexico.  “We want to figure out what caused the violence in this region,” says Offenbecker. “In trying to understand the nature of violence you need to understand who’s involved, so we want to determine who the victims were.” 

Thanks to her recent winning of the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship – which brings her $50,000 a year in funding for the next three years – Offenbecker is able to dedicate herself to this ambitious project, which is federally funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant. 

Using biogeochemical analysis of bones and teeth from the human remains discovered at the site, Offenbecker seeks to determine whether those killed at Paquimé were local to the region, or, if they were outsiders to the community, perhaps immigrants or captives. “This is a major component,” she says. “Was this a matter of us versus them mentality? Did ideas of ethnicity play a part? That’s what we’re trying to discover.” 

She notes that adverse climatic conditions were pervasive in the region around the same time as Paquimé was abandoned. Such conditions often lead to resource scarcity and, consequently, competition over those resources. At the same time, there was an increase in population at Paquimé.  “These factors cause stressors on a community and we often see violent conflicts when we have this sort of situation,” she notes. 

Understanding the origins of violence in the past is crucial, says Offenbecker, because “it informs our understanding of the human condition in the present.” 

“From archaeological and paleoanthropological research we know that violence is a part of human history. Understanding the conditions under which it develops is important today. People commonly think of evolution and adaptation as being primarily biological, but with humans today it’s mostly cultural and behavioral. It’s a matter of how we adapt to the world around us. Violence is an adaptation, in a way.” 

Offenbecker says she’s always been torn between the social sciences and natural sciences and the field of bioarchaeology gives her the opportunity to practice both. “I get to do chemistry, biology and anatomy when I’m studying these human skeletal remains,” she says. “Then I take those findings and apply them to understanding culture and behavior in human beings. 

“It’s a unique and exciting combination.” 

In addition to the Vanier award, Offenbecker is also a 2014 Izaak Walton Killam Pre-Doctoral Scholarship recipient. The Killam Trusts fund scholarships at the graduate and postgraduate levels in specific Canadian institutions and are awarded to doctoral students of outstanding calibre. The 2014 recipients, including Offenbecker, will be recognized for their achievements at a reception on Oct. 16 hosted by the University of Calgary, the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the members of the Killam Scholarship Committee.