University of Calgary

Studying diet of prehistoric humans

UToday HomeJanuary 7, 2013

By Sarah McGinnis

Katzenberg believes cross-faculty collaboration was key to her groundbreaking research that caught the attention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Photo by Riley BrandtCross-faculty collaboration was key to Katzenberg's groundbreaking research that caught the attention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Photo by Riley BrandtThe University of Calgary’s Anne Katzenberg has always been fascinated by the secrets locked within human skeletal remains.

When she began examining the bones of prehistoric people in the 80s, many academics believed poor diet was responsible for diseases in ancient populations. But this explanation didn’t make sense to Katzenberg.

“The early historic documents I read said these people were healthy and tall. I thought it was ethnocentric of us to think that because they didn’t have the Canada Food Guide, they didn’t have adequate nutrition,” said Katzenberg, an archaeology professor in the Faculty of Arts whose work focuses on physical anthropology and paleonutrition.

Katzenberg embarked on a new course of research examining the preserved protein in prehistoric bones. By using stable isotopes, “natural tracers” that don’t decay over time, she has been able to help reconstruct the diet of our ancestors.

Her groundbreaking insights caught the attention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who named her as one of their latest AAAS Fellows.

“I was very pleased. It’s an honour to be recognized by my colleagues in an American organization,” said Katzenberg, who is already a Royal Society of Canada Fellow.

Katzenberg will be honoured at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting on February 16 in Boston, Mass.

She credits the University of Calgary’s collaborative approach with helping support her academic achievements.

“Everything I’ve done is a result of cross-faculty collaborations,” said Katzenberg, who also serves as associate vice-president (research) for the university, as well as a consultant in forensic anthropology for the Medical Examiner of Alberta.

When faced with perplexing results from fish bones discovered in Siberia, Katzenberg mentioned it to Ed McCauley who suggested she examine some ecological literature. The advice opened up a whole new area of research for Katzenberg and others in her field. It’s one of many examples of how researchers can help each other even from different disciplines, she said.

“My work is really a product of a lot of intellectual exchange with colleagues across this campus,” said Katzenberg. “I couldn’t have done it without that collaboration.”