Seeing Fingers Decipher Bones

Give Marsha Ogilvie some bones, and she’ll tell you the who, what and how … and she does it all with her hands

When diabetes took her sight at age 27, Marsha Ogilvie assumed that any future career in anthropology would be impossible. After a 12-year hiatus, however, she tried her hand at bone recognition by touch on a dig sponsored by the Texas Archeological Society. She found she had a knack for putting skeletons together—and soon she was back to school, dumbfounding everyone as she earned first a master's and then a doctorate in skeletal biology from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.

"Marsha would come to my office from the osteology lab with these tiny scraps of bone, and ask me to help her identify them," says her adviser, Neanderthal expert Erik Trinkaus, now at Washington University in St. Louis. "I didn't have a clue. I'd say, 'Well, it's part of a brain case,' and she would say, 'I know that, but what is it?' And off she'd go, all the more determined."

 Along the way, she has found new evidence—from bones of different hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies—that women were primarily responsible for "inventing" agriculture. She has entered the debate over early Pueblo bones, siding with those who reject the idea that the millennium-old butchered remains are the result of cannibalism. Instead she suggests that the victims were accused witches, whose remains were destroyed to prevent evil spirits from reanimating the bodies. And she has worked on modern forensic cases as well, helping authorities sort out the who, when and why of legal cases involving bones.

Along the way, she has also "created" bones, working with a colleague to develop a miniature dinosaur exhibit for the benefit of blind children at a local museum. As that colleague, Steve Wagner, puts it, Ogilvie is a remarkable symbol "of ... well, of just never giving up."

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