College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences

Making Skeletons Talk

Jessica with her students

Professor Jessica Cerezo-Román with her students Purdeep Dhanoa and Jonathan Elias

Holding history in their hands, students Purdeep Dhanoa and Jonathan Elias, study the cremated remains of a newly discovered ancient people in Malawi, East Africa, under the direction of Assistant Professor Jessica Cerezo-Román.

The remains date back to the Neolithic period between 9500-9300bc, a time before the invention of agriculture where people sustained themselves as hunters and gatherers. Cerezo-Román, who is highly sought after as the world’s leading expert in ancient cremated remains, provides her students with the rare opportunity to intimately work with human bones.

“Hands on training is very crucial. Bones are not merely two dimensional, nor is every femur the same, person to person. Each bone can tell a specific life-story of the person they belong to – the age, the biological sex, the pathologies (fractures, bone diseases, etc.), even diet. So, from my experience, just having images wouldn’t suffice” says Dhanoa.

The combination of social theory supported by strong scientific methods is what inspired Cerezo-Román to delve into the study of the human body. As a first year college student she thought she would become a judge or prosecutor. Fortuitously, she enrolled into a Forensic Anthropology class that opened a new career path for her.

 Jessica Cerezo Roman“I like the process of discovery, and I like to make the skeleton talk. To understand, read, and give them a voice. Each has their own life history, and I like to reconstruct that and understand them” says Cerezo-Román.

In pursuit of a career in Anthropology, she obtained her Master’s Degree in Biological Anthropology specializing in Forensic Anthropology from Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. While finishing a doctorate degree in Anthropology (Archeology subfield) at the University of Arizona, she completed an internship in the medical examiner’s office and the Bioarchaeology Laboratory in the Arizona State Museum, both in Tucson.  These opportunities provided her with hands on experience analyzing and working with remains from both modern and ancient populations.

The combination of both forensics and archeology made it possible for Cerezo-Román to answer broader social questions about the remains she was studying, helping to add context to how a civilization lived and died. Noticing a gap in the knowledge of cultures who practiced cremations specifically, Cerezo-Román decided to focus her research in this area.

She began to train with her late mentor Lane Beck, one of the the world’s leading experts in cremation in the American Southwest. Today, Cerezo-Román continues Beck’s legacy mentoring her own students and continuing the important research. Some of Cerezo-Román’s proudest moments are when she is mentoring her students and when they find their interest in the field, especially when her students go on to graduate school.

“Working with Dr. Cerezo-Román is honestly a privilegeshe’s highly knowledgeable, and her expertise is well-sought after in the field” says Dhanoa.