Western Michigan University bioarchaeologist Jacqueline Eng likes a good mystery.
And she hunts for clues in odd places across the globe.
Eng has conducted research on bones extracted from the dark recesses of Himalayan caves, unlocking the secrets of ancient, prehistoric people. Her research was part of a recent National Geographic special.
Eng, assistant professor of anthropology, joined a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists in 2010 as part of an expedition to the Upper Mustang region of Nepal, exploring a system of burial caves containing skeletal remains.
Much can be discerned from the skeletal remains of ancient people, Eng says. By examining isotope signatures, for example, researchers can tell whether people migrated to a region or grew up there.
“Bones are the people themselves, and they record information of what the people experienced in life,” Eng says, “whether it was stress in childhood, dietary insufficiency, trauma, arthritis or growth disturbances. All of these kinds of things might leave markers in the bones. They tell the story of what these people experienced.”
Eng sheds light on cultures that existed thousands of years ago. What kind of community did they live in? What was its historical context? Was there warfare? Was it a time of prosperity? Was it a time of disease? How did they treat their dead?
Eng became interested in examining skeletal remains as an undergraduate student at the University of California Davis, and did her honor's thesis looking at the health of individuals from three different periods to see if it had changed or if there were gender differences. She completed her dissertation examining the health of ancient pastoralists of northern China.
Eng, who is used to working in the solitude of her lab, finds the expeditions have been very stimulating.
“It‛s the inherent mystery,” she says. “I like revealing the story of how these people lived, what they encountered, what they survived and adapted to.”