Wed, Mar 30, 2016 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Professor seeks to uncover stories through old bones

By Tsai Chang-sheng and Jonathan Chin  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Associate professor Chiu Hung-lin, left, teaches at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu on Sunday.

Photo: Tsai Chang-sheng, Taipei Times

Theories about how difficult life was in the Hsinchu area hundreds of years ago are among National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) associate professor Chiu Hung-lin’s (邱鴻霖) work as the nation’s only instructor in the science of human osteoarcheology covering Taiwanese culture.

“Archeology is the analysis of ancient people and their civilizations using the scientific method, while human osteoarcheology seeks knowledge through the study of human bones,” Chiu said.

The university’s osteoarcheology course — the only one of its kind in Taiwan — is designed to teach archeology students how to combine natural science and social science methodologies in the analysis of human bones, Chiu said.

Hands-on research of bones, a key feature of Chiu’s course, is made possible by a collection of skeletal remains and items from graves from the then-Hsinchu First Public Cemetery, which was moved to a new site from 2001 to 2003 to make room for the university’s south campus expansion.

During preparations for campus construction, many of the unclaimed graves in the cemetery were dated to the late Qing Dynasty and had significant archeological value. The university preserved their contents as research and teaching materials.

In his class, Chiu uses the bones from the sites to explore and teach a variety of techniques in physical anthropology. For example, students learn to identify the age and sex of the remains’ owners via visual examination of the bones, while paleopathological methods are used to discern possible medical conditions, including infectious diseases and degenerative disorders.

Students also use DNA material gathered from the remains to map the geographical distribution of genetic family lines and perform isotopic tests to analyze the living conditions and dietary habits of the subjects.

While the course appears to be technically oriented, Chiu said that he teaches his students not to ignore the social and cultural context of the material.

“The context of the unearthed bones and details of the burials provide many clues to the society and culture they came from, which helps form a fuller understanding of history beyond the question of origins,” Chiu said.

He said that a quantitative analysis of the unearthed bones showed that many skulls bore Han features and that many of them showed signs of tuberculosis or syphilis, suggesting hard living was the norm in historical Hsinchu.

Chiu said he hoped that his class would equip students to gleam this kind of knowledge from bones, adding that such autobiographical details are rarely found in written history.

In spite of the popularity of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences program, Chiu’s class only has 20 slots for students because of the limited availability of skeletal remains, students Liu Chia-ling (劉家伶) and Hsin Pei-chieh (辛佩捷) said.

Chiu is highly experienced in excavations and other field research skills, in addition to being an excellent storyteller, Liu and Hsin said.

“It is cool to be able to touch real skeletal specimens,” Liu added.

Student Chen Kuan-lin (諶冠霖) said he hoped the class would help him prepare for his grandfather’s jiangu ceremony — a second-burial rite widely practiced among Taiwanese, as well as Fujianese and Hakka people — and that he would use the skills he learned in class to examine his grandfather’s remains.

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